Stories from Zimbabwe
reports FROM PARTICIPANTs IN IMMERSION TRIPS
I’ve traveled in many countries, but rarely have I learned as much about a nation and its people as in these short weeks in Zimbabwe. I’m grateful that we visited Victoria Falls and Hwange game preserve to experience the land’s natural beauty, and the Great Zimbabwe National Park to learn of the long history of community life in the region. But ZimJourney 2013’s greatest impact on me was learning of the different ways people tackle our shared social needs, such as education, health care, government and religious faith.
While it seemed such a shame that so many children have to walk miles to and from their schools, it was my first indicator of the high priority Zimbabweans place on education. The care taken with uniforms; the difficulties in raising tuition fees; soccer played on a dusty, rutted, field; net-ball with no nets; and the concentration required for learning in large classrooms – or no classroom – with no electricity and but a single teacher, all made a great impression on me. While I would prefer that the schools had computers, buses and teacher’s aides, like most American schools, it was a great illustration of how much can be done with limited material resources. Also, it was great fun to invite the children to pile into the van for a ride to school; 42 people and two live chickens was the record, I think!
My heart broke to see the bare-bones medical facilities. And I could understand the prevailing belief that a hospital is where you go to die. But again, the energy level of the staff, the priority for preventive health education, and the efforts at better staff training told me that these rural facilities need only more funding and a reliable source of supplies to be centers of healing for more Zimbabweans.
It’s hard to say much positive about the Zimbabwean government; but the people have a concept of how it should function, and are just waiting for the day when the current regime is gone. It was disheartening to watch the shakedown of drivers at police stops and see the dreary conditions of the state-run children’s home in Gweru in stark contrast to the faith-based Kutenda Home. But the interest in the coming elections – and the commitment to peaceful polling – was a hopeful sign. Our brush with the government spies in Mosembura did show me that even they are people, too. They joined in our prayer circle in the orphanage church and one told us that his side-business could have done a better paint job on the dormitory!
It was in our religious experiences that I felt the most warmth of engagement. Nightly devotionals with the Lutherans in Burure, the daily chapel service at Sanyati Baptist Hospital, and the Sunday worship services were shared spiritual experiences and a sign of the strength of religion in daily life for many Zimbabweans. The lively dancing in worship was new to me, but showed how traditional rituals could be retained in the conversion to Christian faith. The curling paper-back hymnals evidenced how enthusiastically they’d been used. The warmth of the greetings and hospitality offered us visitors was a great connection.
While our group certainly stuck out as a novelty in the country, we were warmly included in all aspects of daily life. At all times, we were made welcome by Zimbabweans. I shook more hands in those three weeks in Zimbabwe than in a year at home.
Thank you for your generous support of my trip to Zimbabwe, Africa from July 5-31. I traveled with a non-profit, interfaith, ecumenical organization called JourneyPartners. JourneyPartners has been partnering with Zimbabwe for almost 20 years to help with educational endeavors, construction and renovation projects, and healthcare needs. The organization is unique because the focus is on cross-cultural immersion experiences for travelers. We stayed in host homes while on our trip whenever possible instead of staying in hotels to more fully experience the culture and to be able to form more meaningful relationships with the people. The Zimbabwean people were amazed that we wanted to stay in their homes and experience their everyday life. They told us that this is not the case for most visitors who come to help them.
Our group had 10 members, ranging in age from 22-72. The team members were from North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia. We met at the airport and left Dulles on July 5 at about 8:30 PM. After about 20 hours of flying, we arrived in Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe. Our first adventure was about to begin. The driver showed up to pick us up on a 15-passenger van. This wouldn’t normally be such a problem, except that there were 10 of us and 33 suitcases, plus 20 carry-on bags, and a wheelchair to fit into this van. Our men worked diligently for almost two hours to get everything in the van. Our driver, John, called his cousin, who lived 20 minutes from the airport. We finally got everything crammed in, including us, with two of us sitting on two suitcases that were between the driver and passenger seat. We drove to John’s cousin’s house and dropped off the suitcases we didn’t absolutely have to have that night. Once we got everything unpacked/repacked, we took off for our first destination, Sanyati. We’d been told that it’d take us about 3 hours to get there. We found out quickly that in Zimbabwe, you have to double the estimated time allotted to find the actual time for your trip. We’d been traveling for three hours and realized that we still had a long way to go to get to Sanyati. It was getting dark, we were getting hungry, and our driver was concerned about the state of the roads on the way to our destination. We ended up stopping at a conference center to stay the night.
The next day, the driver took half of our group to Sanyati. Then he turned around and went all the way back to Harare to get the rest of our suitcases. He stopped and picked up the rest of us to take us to Sanyati on his way back. It took us about three hours to get there. The roads were quite an adventure! Limited pavement, plenty of dirt paths, cattle roaming freely, potholes seemingly big enough to swallow the van! But, thanks to our amazing driver, we arrived in Sanyati just before sundown. They fed us dinner and sent us to our host homes for the night.
We walked to the hospital the morning with our hostess and attended the chapel service. We received a tour of the hospital. We celebrated many success stories, but also heard the needs of the hospital. The x-ray machine is not functioning right now. The blood count machine is also broken right now. We brought nine suitcases full of supplies to the hospital, including a whole suitcase filled with examination gloves, as they often run low/run out of simple medical supplies such as gloves.
We left our two nurses to stay the week at the hospital and headed to Burure, the village where we spent two weeks. This trip was also supposed to take three hours, but ended up taking over six hours. Just as it was beginning to get dark, we reached our destination. Two school children were waiting for us at the road to guide us to the village. They hopped into the van and we drove for another four plus miles down a winding, bumpy, dirt road. We were truly in the middle of nowhere. At one point, we reached the riverbed where the bridge had been washed away during the rainy season and never replaced. Our driver expertly navigated the steep gully, and we continued. We finally arrived at the clinic, where we were greeted by the pastor and the principal of the secondary school. Two teachers fed us dinner and they showed us where we’d sleep for the night.
The next morning they took us to the construction site, also the location of the secondary school. All of the materials needed to begin construction were not at the site yet, so we were given a tour of the secondary school. The students were in the midst of exams when we arrived. They were seated on the floor, copying their exams off of the chalkboards into their booklets. There were so many students that not everyone could take their exams at the same time, so students would be gathered outside studying, hanging out, and relaxing when waiting their turn to be inside the classrooms.
We went into the classrooms and visited the children. They were all so polite and happy to see us. That evening, they fed us supper and then we were introduced to our hosts. Eve, the headmistress of the secondary school, asked me if I’d like to stay at her home with her. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Eve lives about four miles from the school and she walks to and from school every day. Luckily, our driver dropped us off and came back and picked us up the next morning. We did not have electricity or running water at our host homes. We used outhouses and took bucket baths, which was an adventure! But the hospitality of our hosts and hostesses was amazing! They were so kind and generous. For example, Eve gave up her bed while I was there and slept on the floor so I could have a warm bed.
The first Saturday we were in Burure, we met up with our two nurses and went to Nenyunga to visit the clinic where they were going to complete their second week of work. We took a suitcase full of birthing kits and receiving blankets for the expectant mothers. We visited the “new clinic” to allow our construction expert to measure for a roof. The “new clinic” walls have been constructed, but it does not have a roof yet. Our contractor negotiated with local Zimbabwean contractors to install the roof.
On Sunday morning, we went to church at the clinic. The Dean had come to visit while we were there because she wanted to meet us. She preached the service. We enjoyed participating in a Lutheran Zimbabwean church service.
The next week in Burure, we continued to work on the school. The local construction team that we helped worked quickly. In no time, they blocked out the windows and installed the door frames. It was amazing how quickly the building went up and took shape. We went from nothing to roofline in a little less than two weeks.
When we weren’t helping with construction, we enjoyed spending time with the children. They had an assembly the Friday before we left to tell us good-bye and thank us for our service and friendship. They wrote and recited poems, sang, and danced. It was very touching!
We went to an outside church service the second Sunday we were in Burure. It was an amazing worship experience. One of the women apologized for us having to be outside for church when we have such wonderful buildings in America. We assured her that we had thoroughly enjoyed worshiping with them outside for the day. They cooked lunch for us and we got to fellowship with the church members.
After our two weeks ended, we moved on to Masembura to visit the Kutenda Children’s Home. We spent a day painting the outside of one of the dormitories. We also painted the outside of the kitchen building. We got to interact with the children when they got home from school. We presented them with tie-dye drawstring bags that were filled with hygiene supplies and handwritten notes from the children at one of the home churches of a couple on the trip. We did not get to spend nearly enough time with these precious children!
We also visited Gweru, where a partner of our organization has started a new seminary. We got to tour the building he is renting and hear about the programs at the seminary. We got to talk to several students. I even got to hear one of the students preach a sermon when we went to church the last Sunday we were there.
We took a few days at the end of the trip to visit Victoria Falls and Great Zimbabwe, stone ruins from the 11th-14th century.
We left to return home on July 29 and arrived safely at Dulles on July 31. Those of us who went for the first time made many new friends who are near and dear to us. Those who had gone before were able to renew old friendships. We also became very close as a group through shared experiences. I encourage each of you to consider going on a mission trip, even if it is local. If you cannot go, consider supporting someone else’s trip. It is truly a life-changing experience. I was moved deeply by this experience. I am planning to return next summer to help continue the work we started this year. I’d love to have you join me!
There are still so many needs present in Zimbabwe. We are already working on funding for next year’s trip. We are discussing many projects, including supporting Kutenda Children’s Home by building the director a small office so he can have more space for children in the dormitories. We are also considering helping continue the work started at the Nenyunga Clinic. The clinic needs bathrooms and homes for nurses before it can open for patients. The school building we built in Burure needs furniture so it can be used for its intended purpose, a testing center for students. There are also several places in need of clean/safe water. Please consider if you can support these worthy projects or if you can pass along this information to someone you think might be willing to help. Any donation, no matter how small, can go a long way toward making these lofty goals a reality. We can only accomplish as much as we can fund. Thank you for considering how you can help. Thank you again for your generous financial support, prayers, and encouragement!