Walking 30 K for A-Levels


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My interpreter M is waiting with me for a woman we’ve driven five hours to see. When she comes out of nowhere and appears from between two trees and the thorn bush, she is all smiles and sweat. She was tending her garden, which is really probably a small farm, and had no idea we would be visiting today. She offers her hand and welcomes me. Her welcome for M is warm and familiar. Her name is Jasmine. She excuses herself and says she’ll be right back.

I see her disappear into the house, then walk out the back way toward one of the outbuildings. There is, of course, absolutely no electricity or plumbing out here. I guess where she is headed is the outhouse. Or maybe where water is stored, because she emerges 15 minutes later with wet hair, wearing a clean, ironed, black t-shirt with something written on it and aids, showing the red ribbon of aids support. She wears tennis shoes on her feet and her skirt is covered with a colorful cloth that makes a second skirt.

Jasmine is so happy to see us and show us around. She is a volunteer, one of those people who said, “I want to help the orphans,” then was trained at Katherine’s organization and now helps keep child-headed households alive. But out here in the bush the term takes on a whole new meaning, as I soon find out. We climb back into the truck, this time Jasmine sits between M and me. I can smell something like flowers, is it a jasmine scent, or lavender water? I wonder what I must smell like to her. It is long past noon and I offer her and M some of my water. They decline. Then I reach into my trusty small black backpack and pull out a bag of almonds I brought with me from Holland. I pass this around and they are both very interested. Turns out they’ve never eaten almonds before. We crunch away as M drives deeper into the bush.

In the meantime, and probably to M’s relief, I direct my questions to Jasmine. Her English is good enough that M doesn’t need to translate, and I figure we’re sitting so close together our arms and legs are sweating in unison, and there is no escaping me, so now is as good a time as any to pick her brains. It’s a rare opportunity, actually, to interview someone like Jasmine, who lives in the bush and fights on the frontline of the aids survival war in Africa.

I ask about the goat programme. The churches select beneficiaries and supervise distribution. Katherine’s organization only does supportive visits, like this one M is making today with me. Jasmine says she already has a follow-up report for the chicken project they began less than a month ago. M is eager to hear the news. All the chickens hatched their eggs, so every one of the child-headed households who received chickens now have chicks, as well. It turns out the chicken project is slightly more successful than the goat project because sometimes a goat gets lost in the bush. She says more than 80 percent of the goats are doing well.

There has been very little rainfall in the area for years. The goats are turned out into the bush every morning. The orphans go to school. In the evenings, they must round up the goats from the bush and put them into one of the pens made of thorn-bush branches. This can take a lot of time and energy, so it is the only downside to having the goats. Otherwise, the animals are very low maintenance because they find their own food. “What are they being protected from?” I ask. Jackals. The kids are kept in a small shelter in the pen. At sunset the goats tend to come closer to their pen anyway, but sometimes they are lost and must be searched for. When the kids are kept enclosed, the mothers don’t wander far. So there is good progress because of the goat and chicken projects. Every now and then when the goats disappear one of the orphans must spend all night looking for it. You don’t have that problem with the chickens.

It turns out Jasmine is not just a volunteer, but she is a coordinator of volunteers. Ten volunteers out here report to her. She is caring for 50 families. She tells me that “many” of her people are HIV+, “but out here it is difficult to get ARVs. So many of the children are born with HIV and are abused.” Each of her volunteers has five child-headed families under her, for whom she helps to raise school fees and supply food, when possible. They all grow gardens that supply food for the orphans. Jasmine says, “You have to have a passion for orphans.” Whenever I ask her a question to which she answers yes, she prefaces her words with a long sigh-like moan, “Ehhhh.”

We drive in and out of deep ruts, as M navigates his way between the trees and thorn bush, weaving in and out, but seeming to know exactly where he’s going. We’ve been in the car for over an hour. Every now and then Jasmine points to the right or left, but I cannot see what they use for landmarks or signs. At some point we pass under a tree filled with noisy birds, chattering away. M and Jasmine say something and laugh. I ask about the joke and they look like schoolchildren caught red-handed. When I press them, M admits that they call this sort of bird “English” birds, because of the loud noises they make. I laugh with them and listen more closely. The racket does sound like the noise in our (Anglican) church hall (back in The Hague) during coffee after the service.

I ask some more questions about the orphans’ reactions to the goats. This is a fairly new project for this area. She says the orphans are “very happy about the goats. The goats could give birth this year, but they are already very happy because they can pay their school fees now.”

School out here is from 7.30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Primary-school aged children must walk 5-7 km (3-4 miles), that is 2 hours, to reach school. So that means they leave home at 5.30 a.m. Teenagers must walk 10 km (6.2 miles) to reach the nearest secondary school. “Isn’t that hard on the children?” I ask. Jasmine explains, “The children are happy they are going to school.”

And then I hear why to be a volunteer coordinator in the bush is so much different than in town: Jasmine walks an average of 45 km (28 miles) for her visits. That is how spread out everything is out here. Indeed, we’ve been weaving in and out of gullies, and have seen no one. I ask Jasmine how she manages. “I get up very early, when it is still dark.”

I ask about the aids information campaign in schools. She says, “Yes, everyone hears about it, but they think it’s a story. They think aids is not real.” How does she see the future for the orphans under her care? “They have a bright future. It’s possible, God willing, if they stay in school, but the price of books and school fees has gone up.” It costs 20,000 Zim$ (€10) for a full year—3 terms—of secondary school, and 8600 Zim$ (€4) for a full year—3 terms—of primary school.

I ask her what the orphans she knows want to be when they grow up: Teachers, policemen, drivers and doctors. One boy has told Jasmine, “When I grow up, I want to look after orphans.” I ask for more children’s voices, what has she heard the orphans say? “Some cry about how much they miss their parents. They are not happy because they did not see the burial of their parents. It is our tradition to not let children there.”

Jasmine says since 2001 there are so many more orphans. The community understands that more food must be distributed and is looking after them better by treating them like their own children. I compliment her on her English. “Thank you. I learned it in Wales.” I laugh, you’re kidding? “No, I attended Theological College in Wales.” I tell her my church in The Hague has an Assistant Chaplain from Wales, a woman, “like you,” I say, “a wise woman who cares.” Turns out Jasmine has one child herself, and she is a gogo, but her daughter lives in town.

We finally start to see signs of civilization: A few people walking; they wave at us and we stop while M and Jasmine chat with everyone. We pass a small shop with no other buildings anywhere around it. There are round huts scattered on the hillside rising before us. We pull into a yard with one of these huts and another square house. Curtains blow in the glassless windows. The architecture is the same as Jasmine’s house and I imagine what it must have been like for homesteaders coming from the UK to Rhodesia in the middle of the last century and trying to raise a family in this place. It is a place of rare beauty—the light, the colors—but also of rare hardship and solitude.

We all climb out of the truck. I see an outhouse and tell M I’m going into it. He looks doubtful, but what can he say? A woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do. Inside, it is immaculate. No smell. Clean cement. I push aside the scrap metal covering the pit opening with my foot. This is the cleanest outhouse I’ve ever seen. Hardly any smell at all. Relieved, in more ways than one, I emerge and nod that I survived. We head for the house. M and Jasmine call out, but no one answers. There is a wooden bench in the area surrounded by the fence, behind the house. We sit down. Chickens and goats wander around us. I take a few photos.

Then a 19-year-old girl comes out of the house. She is looking down at the ground. “Where are the others?” asks Jasmine. “At school,” the girl answers. This is one of the child-headed households under Jasmine’s care. The distance we just drove with difficulty, Jasmine must walk, to check up on this houseful of orphans. I can see the girl is quite sick. Her skin tone is clay-colored, a sort of gray overlaying the brown. The way she holds herself, hanging, one arm around her belly, tells me she is in pain. I ask how she is feeling and the girl says not well. “It’s malaria,” she says. I am surprised to hear this because I know there is no malaria in this part of Zimbabwe, but for once, I don’t say anything. M has brought some food—a sack of maize—and leaves that behind for the children. I watch the rooster and chickens. In the distant bush I hear donkeys braying. The girl says she has five people with her. Translation—five younger children she must care for. She says, “I am not feeling well.” She turns her face as we stand to say goodbye, and now I see the aids lesions.

A warm wind stirs up the dust at my feet. I look out beyond the fence and see barren sand and salt flats. The dirt at my feet is laced with white.

We climb back into the truck and are silent. The quiet desperation of this teenager dying in such a lonely place, when five younger children depend on her because they have no one else, has stilled me. We drive on and on over the flats, and hit thorn-bush area again. (I’ve since learned that another word for thorn bush is acacia.)

Up ahead we can see three teenage boys walking. There is no road here, and they seem to be going in a different direction than us. They wait for us to catch up to them and stop. Jasmine knows them and talks with them for a few moments. M says a few words. They introduce me and I shake the young men’s hands through the window. “What are you doing out here?” I ask. They laugh. “We are taking exams.” I look around at the bush and wild, empty hills and ask where? More laughter. “Madam, you see that hill, and the one behind it? That is where we take our exams.” But how far is that? “Thirty ks.” (30 km= 18.5 miles) “We walk today, then Thursday we rest and on Friday we take our A-levels. We are very tired when we arrive.” When we drive on, they wave, tall and strong, hopeful looks on their young faces.

After another hour we see a few scattered round huts. An elderly woman comes out to speak with us. She is not happy. M and Jasmine listen and nod. When we drive away, they tell me this gogo and her orphans are part of the chicken project. After getting nine hens, all the eggs have hatched and now the gogo says she can’t look after so many chickens. So she is ready to give back some of the hens into the programme and will not wait two-and-a-half years. “The project is too successful,” M says with a smile on his face.

At some point Jasmine must climb out of the truck to walk ahead and scout out a route for the truck. The bush is thicker here. I can see a thorn-bush fence surrounding a yard and two round huts up ahead. I say, “Why don’t we park the truck and walk the rest of the way?” M looks relieved. As I weave between the thorn bush I notice buds of leaves just starting to emerge. I remember, here it is early spring. A gogo comes out of one of the huts to greet us. All the orphans under her care are at school, so she is alone. She is happy with the goats and chickens. Yes, all the orphans are attending school, so that is good.

I look around the yard, dry dust blowing in a warm wind. I see rake marks and notice now how tidy everything is. I ask why there are two huts, and the gogo says the other one is for cooking. This larger round hut, which looks newly plastered, is for sleeping.

“Anne, she has something special she wants to show you,” M says. We walk out of the yard and there is a gigantic sow with five little piglets hanging off her. This is a small fortune in this world of rural poor where a few chickens, and goats can make the difference between life and death. The pig follows the gogo around like a little dog while the left-behind piglets squeal like they are being attacked by jackals. What a fuss! We all laugh. This is a good home to see, I realize as I take one more look around. Clean, tidy, healthy, and there is hope.

We make the long drive back to Jasmine’s home. I thank her for spending so much time with us. What is your greatest need, I ask? I’m thinking courage, and she says, “A bicycle.” Of course, with the distances she must cover on foot. I hug Jasmine goodbye.

When I came home to The Netherlands from this trip, I had a great deal of difficulty writing about it. For the first few weeks, I could only jot down a couple images that would not let me go. I wrote these onto colored Post-its and put them on the glass framing my Georges Braque print “Lòiseau et son ombre” (Bird and its soul), an in-flight image on a wall in my writing room, to the right of my desk. Braque painted this the year I was born. Anyway, one of the ten Post-its says, Jasmine walking in hope. This image has looked over my shoulder, so to speak, and guarded me these long three months since the trip.

On that day in the bush, as we drive away, I watch Jasmine walking in hope, tall, straight, confident, radiating joy and assurance that she is, in this bush community, exactly where she should be, doing exactly what she does best.

The fluorescent purple jacaranda and bright-orange Flamboyant trees salute us in our search for the paved road. It takes another few hours, but once we return to the tarmac, M pulls over. Before we left town this morning he bought a roast chicken and some fries from a shop. I decline the chicken, but take some of the chips and pour salt all over them. My body is longing for salt in this dry heat. We eat off of the hood of the truck and stand beside the vehicle. I hear a deep thumping in the distance. I think, drums!, but M calls it a giant hammer at a gold-processing plant nearby. Here also, people pan for gold in the nearby river and bring it to the plant.

M looks at me. “This is not easy for you, is it?” he asks. The tenderness in his question catches me by surprise. I bite back the tears. It’s the first time that anyone has ever really asked how I am. Why would it be important when we have children around us dying of starvation and aids? But it strikes a chord within me. I smile bravely and say, “No, I’m fine.” He shakes his head. “You’re not. Look at your shoulder, the sun has burned it. My skin doesn’t do that. It looks like it must hurt. And what you hear from everyone, these stories must weigh heavy on your heart.” I can’t believe he’s seen right through me. I thought I was putting up a brave front. But I nod and cough and look at my left shoulder that’s been beside the open window all day. It is bright red. M sucks on a chicken bone and we both smile at each other. Back in the truck, I sleep for most of the way back to town.

On my last night in Zimbabwe I notice I have stopped counting the hours until I will leave the following day. I have dinner with Katherine, just as I did my first night, in the hotel restaurant where I can order Mexican enchiladas. I tell her my stories and the feedback of my interviews and how exciting the goat programme is and is it me? but people seem to have more of a chance in the bush than in town. She agrees. Her courage and honesty and the respect shown her by so many pastors will be with me always.

In my notebook that night I write: A picnic to the drumming of the gold hammer and crickets after driving through endless almost blooming thorn bush and yellow trees. Sweet Jasmine’s hips pressed beside mine as we wove between cracked salt flats.

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