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Useless Thing

Zimbabwe 6 November 2006 Zimbabwe. Being in Peter and Susan’s home on that Sunday afternoon ripped with lightning, sharing their home with all their healthy, smart, polite teenagers with futures and both parents, felt like being in an oasis in the middle of the desert. I know the reason I went to Zimbabwe was to hear the orphans’ voices, but at some point it was all I could hear.

After I leave their home that Sunday night, I have dreams, and write them down. I dream about people arguing and a conflict being resolved thanks to an old woman with sparkly eyes. I dream about riding a bicycle on rocky mountain trails, the tire falls off, but I have a spare and go on my way. I dream of growing angry at close friends, and saying, “I know this isn’t how I’m supposed to act, you’re used to my agreeing, but now I can’t do that.” I see the confusion in my friends’ eyes.

On Monday morning Katherine picks me up and we go into the organization’s offices. The layout of wooden cubicles with an open ceiling space means people say good morning when we have climbed the stairs and greeted the guard, but I don’t see their faces. One voice sounds familiar. I open the door and there sits Susan. “Welcome, Anne!” She greets me. Katherine introduces me to Leonard, the Monitoring and Evaluation Officer. Leonard is my Aubrey for this leg of the journey, the poor soul who gets to answer all my questions and chauffer me around. I spend much of that morning talking to him. He is a quiet man—I guess in his late twenties—who radiates intelligence. His training is as a registered general nurse and mental health nurse. “Do you think it’s odd that a man would want to be a nurse?” he asks me. I tell him how in Holland this isn’t odd at all and that in fact, when I gave birth to our son, a male nurse assisted me.

I want more information about the gogo and children’s workshops Peter told me about the previous evening. Leonard is the perfect person to talk to about this because of his background in mental health. He says, “What’s interesting is that when the workshops give everyone a chance to talk, this brings out the pain. The gogos discover they suffer from the same pain the kids feel. They have the pain of losing their own children, an entire generation, wiped out. The grandchildren have the pain of losing their parents.”

We talk about the burden of caring. I pick up the thread that Peter showed me, of how many gogos have been abused, and so, tend to abuse their orphaned grandchildren. Leonard says, “Yes, some grannies have admitted to me that they say things like, ‘You’re going to die just like your mother, you useless thing.’”

These words strike me as incredibly powerful, and damning. “Tell me some good news,” I ask, thinking of Erik’s phone call the previous night. Leonard leans on his desk and smiles. “The testimonies of families during follow-up after the workshops. Things really do change. Grandmothers involve their grandchildren in the planning process. There is so much excitement when they work together, and amazing excitement when there is healing, as they have the courage to face the future together. It means so much to the children to be accepted and involved.”

Leonard describes the grannies’ fear of raising yet another generation. One woman told him, “I don’t know if I can invest in these children. I may lose them, as well.” I ask him what exactly they teach during a granny workshop. He says, “We encourage them to do their best with these children. We tell them, ‘God has a purpose for you and your grandchildren. Don’t worry about when they’ll die.’ We remind them of the promises in the Bible, such as those in Psalm 41 and for those who take care of the weak: He says He will sustain you in your sick bed. We say, ‘Have you asked why you are still alive? Maybe it is because you were meant to take care of these special children. God tells us to be a father to orphans. In your homes you have God’s treasure—these orphans. You, as stewards, are blessed. If God were to call everyone, he would call you to the front because of your special families. The work you do, caring for these children, is at the center of His heart.’”

I see now the beauty of what Katherine and Peter have set up here. People like Leonard encourage both the gogos and the orphans. They can’t throw money at them because they don’t have it. But they can give something much more valuable: self-worth, a sense of purpose, vision, and hope. And because they work with and through the churches, they’re able to draw on the promises of God in the Bible. Most important, I think, is the fact that everyone this organization works with are people who have come forward of their own accord, simply because they want to “do something to help the orphans.” So the passion is already present, the initiatives are already owned by the ones involved in learning. Because this is something they want, the grannies and the children—more understanding and hope—they are invested enough to do their best. There is no need for the organization to convince people or hard-sell something, as might happen with a foreign organization coming into a country and telling people what’s best for them. These people have made their own choices and are determined to help themselves. Again, Africans for Africans.

We return to the subject of child abuse. Leonard says he tries to help the grannies realize the magnitude of abusing children, and again draws on Scripture to encourage them with the promise that God will sustain them for the privilege of having orphans in their homes. I ask him how they respond. “With lots of hope. I say, ‘Now that you know these things, start over. Be different. Our children’s volunteer in the community will be at your side. You’re not alone. We help each other. Share with the other grannies and children’s volunteers.’” During the follow-up, he heard from one gogo, “I learned that I’m not the only one facing these problems. Our problems are lighter than others’.” The grannies compare how many children they have lost to aids, and the ones who have lost two are comforted by the ones who have lost four. They get together once a month to compare stories and encourage each other.

The children’s workshops sometimes also include children from the churches who are not orphans. “We try to make other children sensitive to orphans and help them realize how much pain the other children are feeling.”

I ask about these amazing volunteers, people with the same grief and poverty and lack of food and scrambling for school fees and children they have taken in as everyone else, but on top of all that, they have stepped forward to help even more and visit the orphans, bring food to the child-headed households, encourage the grannies, often at great personal cost in terms of time and energy. Leonard says, “They have so much passion and knowledge. They’re very much aware of the needs of the particular families under their care. They have no more than five families, that way they don’t have to face the bigger picture and don’t get discouraged. We tell them this is a long-term commitment, so don’t start this if you don’t want to see it through. This is because it can be so traumatic for an orphan to lose yet one more important adult in their little lives. We tell the volunteers they must be genuine and committed. There is the story of Moses as a little child. When he was floating down that river in a basket, it would have been easy to say he was a useless child. But we don’t know what God’s purpose is for every child, how they’ll turn out, into something. We say, ‘Choose now to mold them. Later they may say, she was old when she took care of me, now I will take care of her.’”

I ask Leonard why he cares so much, what drew him into mental health? He says, “I don’t have much choice because I have a passion for it. I was raised by my mother, and she saw it as normal to care for others. I know it’s a little different than the normal image of a macho African man. I’ve learned that understanding sick people helps you understand yourself. My psychological studies and work have meant every day I am molding and reshaping myself.”

I share a little of my own background, how our daughter Julia works with autistic children. Leonard says, “Here, if you are mentally disabled, people often think you’re demonic, or have been cursed. There’s a terrible stigma.”

We talk about the Bereavement Counseling sessions. This intrigues me so much because after my visit to ACAT in South Africa, I realize it is a source of real healing. I actually think it’s a skill I need to learn and take home with me to Holland. You don’t need to be surrounded by aids cases in order to learn how to listen to someone suffering from loss. Leonard describes what it’s like to see a group of orphans chatting and wanting to appear strong. Then one of them starts crying. He says, “Just crying is ok. I explain to them, ‘You’re crying because you loved your mom and dad.’ They say they feel the pain daily. Many orphans are angry. They blame their present ill treatment on their parents. ‘If only they were here, I’d be safe.'”

What can you say to that, I ask. Leonard says, “We tell them, ‘God brought you here. You don’t know the purpose God has for you. Use what you feel to have compassion for the other orphans.’ Then we follow-up on the anger.”

It is time for me to go meet someone special. David is a teenager with HIV/aids who is willing to talk about his sickness. Katherine has asked if he’s willing to talk with me, and arranged for us to meet. She graciously gives us her office. He has big eyes and wears a bright, Flamboyance tree-orange ski cap. Aids lesions cling to his face like leeches.

We start off easy. David is 19, he’s known Katherine for three years. He says to me right away that he has hope in the future. I think, only HIV+ people feel the need to say such a thing. I do my usual football thing, and it turns out David likes the Brazilian teams. He is studying auto mechanics and will be able to get a job in a few weeks. He is an aids orphan. His grandmother is raising him and his two little sisters, aged 3 and 9. His elder brother is 21 and works in South Africa to send money back to them. He was 5 when his father died and 16 when his mother died.

David won’t look at me as we start to talk about his parents. I ask him if I should stop asking questions about his mother and father. He admits it’s painful to talk about them. I ask, doesn’t talking help? He says whenever he thinks of them, he tries to do other things. “I watch movies to not think about them.” I try again and ask, “What are your favorite memories of your parents?” Now David looks at me again. “My mother’s long hair. And she liked to dance.” I think, there’s something here, and pursue the thread. “Do you like to dance?” Bingo. Turns out David loves to dance. He loves hip-hop. He has his own dance troupe at his church, and his own hip-hop band. They play on the street. I push him a little more and he says, “I like the flow of music. I write my own songs.” What kind? “Love songs or party songs, the kind my mother used to like.” What did she used to do? “She liked listening to children. She used to work in a beer garden as a cashier, and she was on the city council.”

I ask him if it’s ok to talk about the HIV. “It’s cool.” He found out in April 2003, so when he was 16, that he was HIV+. “It was terrible. I thought it was the end of the world. Katherine helped me to get on with life. I feel strong now. I was losing weight, but I went to a private doctor and have to pay for the ARVs. I take them twice a day, morning and evening.” How does he pay for the drugs? “My grandfather is a chief, so he also helps pay my school fees, too.”

Ah, that explains his eloquence, I think. It turns out David can speak three languages fluently. It also turns out that Literature is his favorite subject at school. I ask for titles and he says he likes the “teaching story,” The Mayor of Custerbridge, as well as the “reality” story, Waiting for the Rain. The latter is a book about apartheid South Africa and the friendship between a black boy and a white boy as the black boy fights for an education.

David’s having HIV/aids “doesn’t mean the end of the world. I just have to carry on. It doesn’t mean it’s over. It’s just like diabetes or fever, so long as you take care of yourself.” I say, “And stay away from girls.” His eyes get a little bigger and he looks away. “Yeah.” I ask, Are you in a support group? He nods. What’s that like? “We talk about nutrition.” I say, it sounds boring, and he laughs with his hand over his mouth. What a great big, huge smile. We both laugh and I look down at his blue plastic sandals.

I think how with my own son of 22 I keep asking questions until Daniel tells me to stop—it’s none of my business, so I try the same with David. “It must be hard, though,” I say, “the girls. Isn’t it what your friends are all talking about?” He is surprisingly frank and replies, “I try to avoid being alone so I can stop thinking about it. I watch movies together with my friends. But yeah, they pressure me about girls.” I ask if he can buy condoms here. He nods. Then to ease things up a bit, I ask what his favorite movies are: “Love don’t Cost a Thing,” “Rollbounce,” “Tai-Chi Monster,” and “Kick-boxing.” Pretty typical 19-year-old stuff.

I ask David how he writes his songs. “It just comes in and I hear the music. I hear the flow and the tune and get my friends to sing it.” I tell him this is how Bono also writes for U2. But he hasn’t heard of Bono.

What do you hope for, David? “I hope for to be someone. I just can’t say it. My friends are always changing. I like singing and dancing to gospel music, you know? From the Book.”

I ask David to write some of his songs into my notebook. I’m looking at his handwriting now, back in Holland: tight, neat printing. It’s good stuff: We wanna dance till the sun comes up and the moon goes down. Everybody’s gonna coz we partying right here without any fear and we hear to shear, the weather is clear and ma girl is right here and I’m about to see her with her big long hair, I wanna bounce with her dance baby girl. David calls this his party song. I ask for a love song, and he writes down a song part in English, part in Ndebele. The part in English includes the refrain, …When I close ma eyes I see your face with sparkling eyes like the stars in the sky.

When I am sitting with him and read this I look up at him and ask in a sudden surge of daring, “Is this about the girl who gave you aids?” He looks surprised, but says, “Yeah.”

Later, another young man at the organization, (his name means “love of God”), translates the Ndebele parts of the song for me. Come closer then! Let’s talk things over. I can come later to see you. I know you do me wrong at times, I’ve done the same, let’s forgive one another. And then, show each other a better way, and work hard, and take care of our Love.

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