White Sheep of the Family


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When I ask Geoff what he thinks the top priority should be, he says it is education and opening the door to inquiry and analyzing. He admits that the presence of the black middle class now means they share the responsibility for shouldering responses to aids and poverty.

He tells me about a woman trained at ACAT, Sheila, once so shy she could hardly speak in a room full of others. Now she has her own NGO which provides home-care for aids patients. It all started when she saw a body on the floor like I did, dying on a mattress, and she asked, “What can I do?” She received information and training from ACAT. Geoff says, “Having information enables people. It means they have a choice. Combine that with organization skills, spiritual enlightenment, motivation, and a sense of worth, and there is no stopping people.”

I ask for more examples of what people say has motivated them and Geoff provides the following quotes: • “I realized God loves me and God’s got a plan for me. No, I’m not a mistake or accident.” • “What a mess. I can’t live like this. What would happen if Jesus came and saw this?”

Geoff says, “ACAT helps people learn how to plan and mobilize and set goals and combine this effort in order to generate a cash flow.” ACAT comes alongside communities, trains their volunteers, and then sends them back to the communities to train others.

We talk about the Church in action and ACAT’s vision of a balance between the spiritual and the practical. Geoff says, “Thursday is Church day here—you see women dress up in blue, green and purple, visiting the sick and bringing food everywhere.”

When I ask Geoff my question, how does he cope, he says, “I don’t want the responsibility of a thousand people on my shoulders, but if I’m standing in God, then I can bear the weight of 10,000 because it’s really God who is carrying them. I believe in giving people tools.”

At the airport I buy more materials for the information kits: tea towels with the life of Nelson Mandela and a map of where he has lived printed onto the cloth.

I call my family from the Jo’burg airport. I won’t be able to get any more emails on my Blackberry in Zimbabwe, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get phone reception either, since the EU has no agreement with Zimbabwe. I know from the emails exchanged between Tear and Zimbabwe that emails are censored there. I know someone will meet me. I know there is a woman named Katherine who will be my main contact. (In this blog I have changed the names and places referring to Zimbabwe, for the protection of the people there.)

I look around the shiny marble, wealthy shopped airport and wonder what world I am entering now? A close friend in Holland is from Harare and she has always teased me that I would be welcome among her family. When I said, “Uh, Joyce, I’m white,” she replied, “We’ll just tell them you’re the white sheep of the family.”

The plane from Jo’burg to Zimbabwe is a prop plane with less than 20 seats. On the way, we fly over what I think are the Drakenburg mountains in Kwa-Zulu Natal province, South Africa, or something equally beautiful—rugged rock and violent colors.

When we land, we taxi right by the hangar which has a sign on it saying it’s the temporary airport terminal. Passengers grumble, “Must be the pilot’s first time here.” We finally come to a stop, but must stay inside as the temperature soars and I can smell all the big white men around me. I’m thinking, Rhodesians? And remembering when Zimbabwe declared independence in 1980. I was studying in Vienna then. Finally the door opens and we get some fresh air. The pilot emerges and says he only had the use of one battery and didn’t want to take the chance the plane wouldn’t start up again. Besides, we were out of fuel and needed to park beside the fuel tank. Everyone nods, “Ok, no arguments there.” After a long wait on the tarmac shimmering in heat, a bus comes to pick us up. I go through customs, need to buy a visa, a Zimbabwean with a UK passport asks if I need any help? Is anyone meeting me? I’m a little suspicious. Finally the visa is in order and I get my luggage—the last passenger left on this side of customs in the airport from our flight, the only flight—and walk through the door.

New world. New heat. Extreme heat in the forties. Dry. A woman with short white hair and a smile from here to heaven comes forward and welcomes me. “Anne?” “Katherine?” We’re off. She drives me to the hotel, where I will spend the next six nights. Here the jacarandas are a week further and purple petals dance along the roadside with every breath of wind caused by our passing car. I see dry bush, no green, the outskirts of a town that doesn’t feel like a city. I remember driving through this place eight or nine years ago and buying cookies with the kids, on our way to Botswana. In that short time, Zimbabwe has gone from not so bad to much, much worse.

Katherine talks to me about the persecuted church here. The government censors emails. Phones are tapped. “We’re not allowed to exchange food or money or talk about the government. Groups of more than five are not allowed to meet unless it’s strictly church related. Mugabe has thrown out the NGOs and reporters. Journalists are arrested, sometimes tortured, imprisoned and/or expelled.”

She drops me at the hotel and says she’ll be back a few hours later so we can eat together in the hotel restaurant. I remember walking past a group of American teenage girls, dressed in short shorts and barely nothing tops. They were draping themselves around the front steps. As I passed, one of them asked the doorman, “How much is a room for one night?” I thought how strange, then realized these must be bored students from the American high school. Me, who is always so careful to wear her long skirts and cover up my shoulders and cleavage in Africa, to me these girls were offensive. I could only imagine what the Zimbabweans walking past them thought.

The heat oppressive; there is a mix-up with the rooms, I end up on the top floor with a view of the pool. So grateful that it is clean. A good bed. A bathroom. I can do this, I tell myself. This is much better than any of the private spaces you’ve had in past trips to places of conflict. I remember my first one when I stayed in a refugee camp with rats who came to visit every night. In this room I check for cockroaches, find none, discover the safe is broken, unpack everything but my passport and cash, lock those into my suitcase, and go sit on the balcony. I see palm trees, a garden, the pool, and in the distance, dry, dusty brown buildings. I check my phone—no emails, but I can sms and call. I sms Erik with the hotel phone number.

That evening Katherine returns and we eat at an American-style restaurant in the hotel. I order Mexican food—so strange to do that here. Katherine tells me about how young people are being recruited by the police to spy on teachers and parents and everyone else. The police give them walkie talkies. People are picked up for talking about how many sick children there are in Zimbabwe, or for talking about the recent destruction of homes in poorer areas.

The way Katherine talks about Mugabe is how I remember Iraqis talking about Sadaam when I visited that country in 2001—never actually mentioning his name, but referring to him in fear, with a lowered voice and a glance around the room first. I think East Germany and how that society still has not recovered from its culture of betrayal, where children were raised to turn in their teachers and parents, and 90 percent of the country worked for the Stasi secret police.

Katherine says, “He doubled school fees so that will keep many kids out of school. They go to police camp instead and are given handcuffs and taught to beat up other children who don’t attend. They’re like the Young Pioneers or like the indoctrination of youth in China. Families cannot pay school fees, even with double incomes. A teacher’s salary equals one day’s bus fare. You’ll see on Monday morning, early on the roads there are very few cars—the world is walking.”

I watch Katherine, her sparkling blue eyes, the lines on her face. She emanates a tremendous energy and something else—righteous anger. At some point, she greets others in the restaurant, excuses herself and is welcomed with open arms at another table. Later, as these people leave, the man passes us, leans down and says softely to me, “You’re talking with the Mother Teresa of Zimbabwe.”

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