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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Makokoba City Warriors

An entire blog would not suffice to describe the myriad challenges of living in sub-saharan Africa, but certainly the daily power outages, struggle to secure transportation, and pervasive government corruption and inefficiencies trivialize the challenges I faced growing up in Massachusetts. More upsetting than these personal inconveniences are the daily struggles of the people of Zimbabwe. Neighbors watch their corn seedlings fail to grow as January still has not brought the rains historically rumbling by October. More than 80% of the population is unemployed, and almost 15% of Zimbabweans are HIV-positive.       

I recently got a pretty special glimpse into life in a township outside of Bulawayo when Ale, Nkosi, and I traveled to Makokoba township for dinner with our Zimbabwean mother, Esnath. On a Sunday afternoon in mid-January, we threw the dog in the car and headed for the lodge to pick up Esnath after work. She knocked off at 2pm and we were headed for the ghetto of Bulawayo to have dinner with her kids and finally meet her extended family. After driving around to nearly every single grocery store in Bulawayo in search of elusive 2-kg bags of frozen chicken pieces, Esnath turned around in the front seat and asked if we would “eat the live ones.” She said, “We can get them there, in Makokoba, at the market.” Ale and I laughed and said that of course we’d eat fresh chicken. Crisis averted, and with the rest of the ingredients for dinner in the car, we turned right onto Herbert Chitepo Ave and left on Fifth, heading for the most densely populated area in the southern half of Zimbabwe.

Makokoba is Bulawayo’s oldest township. Barely out of the city center, it is home to thousands of families who live in crumbling tenements. This housing was built before independence, when black Zimbabweans were largely confined to the "western areas" or townships west of the city. Independence was in 1980, so now the buildings are crumbling and decrepit. They stand two stories tall, and each building contains many units upstairs and down. Laundry lines are festooned between buildings accented by cracked satellite dishes and flaking paint. Graffiti is everywhere, trash fires burn on the side of the road, and everyone walks everywhere; no one can afford a car. The roads haven't been maintained in three decades so they are are eroded and narrow, with giant pot holes. Yet despite the oppressive poverty and lack of sanitation and trash disposal, the townships are some of the liveliest places in Bulawayo. They teem with human life, love, laughter, and family. Neighbors watch out for each other, and music is constantly blaring, echoing off the two-story tenements and sending children into fits of dance, imitating their older siblings or someone they saw on TV. My trips to the townships have made it abundantly clear to me why all Africans can dance. While at Esnath's I saw a baby in a diaper shaking his hips to DJ Cleo next door. It's in their blood.

Often, as is the case with Esnath’s family, an entire family will share just two rooms in these tenements: a kitchen and one bedroom. Esnath’s husband passed away several years ago and she is an incredible mother to her four children. They have one bed and one bed frame, but through her hard work and sacrifice she has managed save enough over the years to purchase a new refrigerator, an old television set, a microwave, several wardrobes, and even some kitchen cabinet sets. The cabinets are made of lightweight metal, white with red trim and marbled faux-formica countertops. Above the television is one of those light-up, electronic scrolling scenes. It depicts the NYC skyline, complete with twin towers, and boats and planes floating and flying past it. They keep it plugged in at all times and it illuminates the room (except when they lose power every day). It struck me as odd that there would be an NYC scene in Esnath’s living room/kitchen/foyer. The odds are stacked monumentally against any members of her family ever seeing the United States.
We spent the afternoon with Esnath’s extended family. First of all, we headed to the Makokoba Market to buy dinner. Two chickens for $7 each. We wandered around the market and back to the house where the women prepared the chicken while the men drank cane alcohol cut with Sprite or Coke. Esnath’s son brought speakers outside and Soul Brothers or house music blared until well after dark. The living room/kitchen turned into a dance party despite the ladies trying to prepare the meal, and the whole neighborhood reverberated with the bass from Zahara or DJ Cleo. The people of Makokoba could not stop talking to us; kiwhas rarely, if ever, visit these townships. As dinner hour approached, Esnath showed me how to mix sadza properly (I’d been trying all year at our house but never really succeeded), and when the chickens were done stewing we had a delicious meal. The family members seemed to never stop coming, but everyone ot a serving of chamolia (spinach-like vegetable fried in oil), sadza, and stewed chicken.
On a Saturday a few weeks later, we helped Esnath’s family move from their two rooms in Makokoba to two new rooms in Mziligazi. The person they rented from in Makokoba decided they wanted to use those two rooms again, so out they went. We spent the day ferrying all the family’s belongings to the new place in Mziligazi. After we’d made a few trips along the same route through the townships, a group of young men in their 20s tried to hail me to stop the overpacked car. Esnath urged me to keep driving: “They’re totsis (thieves),” she said. We succeeded in shifting all the belongings, with the help of the entire extended family of course, just before it started drizzling. We left Esnath and her sisters to organize the kitchen and headed home. Days like these really put into perspective all the things we take for granted in the United States


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Thank you THETFORD!

Last weekend we went to Emthunzini Wethemba to drop off all the clothes we brought back to Zimbabwe, collected and donated by the kids at Thetford Elementary School in Thetford, VT. Big shout out to my Thetford family! The kids at Emthunzini Wethemba loved the clothes, but they were handed out a little differently than the cleats I brought by a few weeks ago. You see, Sis P likes to instill discipline in the kids, so they are given a few sets of clothing for the week. They are responsible for keeping themselves clean so the clothes don’t have to be washed every day. This is the reality when there are 65 children living under one roof and no full-time person to do laundry. Therefore, the majority of the clothing from Thetford went into storage, to be handed out to the kids as they wear out the clothing they currently have. However, some of it went to kids who already had holes in their shirts or pants. The big girls got to sift through a selection of the more stylish stuff that came down and they were thrilled! I could hear them shouting across the yard. No matter what, the clothing will all be used, and it was very much needed. At the moment, the kids have only bread and tea for breakfast and sadza (cornmeal) and beans for lunch. They last had meat when some chickens were donated for Christmas. You can be sure the clothes will be put to good use, and they will allow orphanage staff to direct what little funding they occasionally receive into nutrition for the kids, where it is needed most.

Special thank you to my buddy Aiden Cudhea and his dad Cameron! These two guys are my old friends, and they organized the clothing drive at Thetford. They did such a fantastic job I couldn’t even bring all the clothes that were donated! Then I almost broke my back lugging a giant hockey bag from NYC to Egypt to South Africa, and finally across the border into Zimbabwe. We came by bus and I got quite a few funny looks at customs, but it was well worth it. The kids at the orphanage are now so well-stocked with beautiful, gently used clothing. 

Also, thank you to Cameron and Aiden as well as the Thetford administration for giving me the chance to talk to a few of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade classes about Emthunzini Wethemba when I visited in January. The kids were fantastic listeners and they had great questions about the kids and about life here in Zimbabwe. They got to see some videos from the orphanage, and I'm looking forward to showing the Emthunzini Wethemba kids some photos from Thetford. Thank you!

Take a look at how much clothing you gave them; some of the boys are already wearing donated shirts. Enjoy the pictures, thank you to everyone at Thetford!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Emthunzini Wethemba Football Club

Photo by Ale Frisch. Mine are the ugly ones at the bottom...

On Saturday morning we went back to Emthunzini Wethemba to play soccer with the kids. It was the first of what I hope will become a weekly ritual of spending time with the kids there playing soccer, helping to cook meals, gardening, helping to care for the chickens, or cleaning and organizing storage rooms. We arrived and I let Nkosi out of the car on a leash. I walked him towards some kids playing around the rickety swingset in the center of the yard. Emthunzini Wethemba’s campus buildings were built in the 1970s by the late Reverend Ndoda and his wife. The three main buildings form a courtyard, with the director’s quarters and the boys’ dormitory on the left, the girls’ dormitory and kitchen straight ahead, and the administrative offices and big girls’ dorm in the building to the right. The center of the courtyard is shaded by a few tall trees, and a giant tractor tire half-buried in earth alongside the swingset form a playground. On the other side of the swingset is a braai stand where the cooks were boiling water for morning sadza when I visited in December, because none of the stoves had been working.

The kids started screaming at the sight of Nkosi. As children on the streets of Bulawayo, I can’t even imagine what their experience with dogs has been. I did the stupidest thing possible, placing too much faith in Nkosi’s even temperament and love for kids. It was only 8am and I failed to take into account that he’s always wired in the morning. I made him sit and slipped his choke collar off. The kids shrieked and Nkosi cleared the playground in about 3 seconds. He chased a few girls all the way to the door of their dormitory, but I caught him before he could get inside. I put the leash back on him and threw him back in the car, where he remained for the rest of the visit. They’re not ready yet.

An elderly woman scolded me from the step of one of the buildings. I begged forgiveness for scaring the kids and she shook her head and told me to go see Sis P. Sistah P, the artist formerly known as Patience Dube, is the 25-year-old volunteer social worker and caretaker of 65 children. She was waiting for us in the administrative building. She greeted us as warmly as always but said we should probably go say good morning to the director. I prayed to God that the director wasn’t the lady who’d just yelled at me. She was.

The Reverend Ndoda’s wife still lives on the campus of Emthunzini Wethemba in the brick building forming the west side of the courtyard. Sistah P brought us into her brightly lit sitting room where several couches faced a wall dominated by a picture of the late Reverend. The director bustled in from the adjoining kitchen and we all stood to shake hands. I tried to be polite and apologized once more, but this elderly woman was stern: “You mustn’t come and just start playing with the children until you have made your presence known to Sis P.” I had anticipated a hiding for terrorizing twenty orphans with my dog, but instead, like all Zimbabweans, the director was simply a stickler for protocol. She made no mention of the kids’ canine conniptions. In the next breath her stern face dissolved in to a wrinkle-framed smile, and she grabbed me in an embrace and told me to call her “gogo” which means grandmother. Then she held me at arms length, jabbed a finger at my chest, and said forcefully, “I am your grandmother.” No arguing with that. “Yes ma’am!”

We visited with Ma Ndoda for only a few minutes, but she shared a brief history of the orphanage and said she’d been living on the campus for more than twenty years. Then she ushered us out the door to greet the kids. “They’re waiting for you.” Sis P assembled all the kids, the ‘big girls’ once again bringing up the rear, and they all smiled expectantly. I brandished a soccer ball and they promised to show us where the football grounds were. But first, we had some business to attend to. My neighbors, the Brown family, collected more than 25 pairs of used youth soccer cleats and the boots made the journey with me from Boston, to NYC, to Cairo, to Joburg, and all the way to Bulawayo. I hauled the suitcase full of cleats out of the car and into Sis P’s office. Initially she called only six boys who were “the soccer players.” After they’d tried on boots and found pairs that fit, she started sending them running into the dining room where the rest the kids were eating breakfast. First they came one by one. Sis P would shout a name and a little kid would go running out the door in his new boots. He’d return hand-in-hand with another orphan and the new kid’s eyes would light up when he or she saw the suitcase full of cleats. Now boys and girls were getting involved and older kids helped younger ones try on different sizes. It was chaos, somehow organized by the maestro, Sis P. Meanwhile, the kids who’d already found their sizes had got a hold of the soccer ball we brought (the only ball they have is made from plastic bags) and were breaking in their new boots outside. Soon the suitcase was almost empty.

The tiny pairs of cleats included in the collection made for some priceless fittings. One tiny boy named Gerard stood bewildered with a half-eaten piece of bread in his hand, staring at me and my camera while two teenage girls fitted him with a shiny pair of blue Diadoras, youth size 10.5. He beamed when he looked down at his feet and ran back to finish his breakfast, but he would be back.

Once all the kids had eaten and the empty suitcase was returned to the car, the kids wasted no time showing us the soccer grounds. We headed out the front gate and took a right towards the Mpilo Hospital OI clinic that stands next to the orphanage. The kids poured out of the gates, carrying the younger ones on their shoulders. Not a single kid stayed behind at the orphanage. We held hands and sang while we walked the half kilometer to the soccer pitch. Some of the teenage boys tore ahead, making me nervous as they darted into the road and screamed to each other while cars shot by, barely slowing. We reached the field, located behind the Mpilo Hospital Opportunistic Infections clinic. As the kids cavorted around the pitch I noticed faded gravestones poking between overgrown elephant grass beyond the far sideline. The kids were used to this sight by now, and were busy running laps, warming up. There was no question they were taking this very seriously. After 10 minutes of shooting around with the few kids who weren't running laps or completing spontaneously organized warm-up routines, we split into two giant teams and kicked the ball straight up in the air to start the game. Every single kid in the orphanage tore around the pitch, raising dust in the morning air and never slowing when the ball bounced into the half of the field where patchy grass had grown to knee height. We batted the ball back and forth across the field for 20 minutes, chasing it in clumps, before a goal was finally scored. It was worth the wait. A group of girls, purportedly on the scoring team but who had previously been engaged in a heated gossip circle at the other end of the field, immediately broke into a coordinated goal celebration that the rest of the team, and all the kiwhas, quickly took up. It was too good to not have been planned. Or it could just be that they’re African so they came out of the womb dancing.

That a soccer ball and a few foreigners could create such joy and diversion for so many orphaned kids, on a soccer pitch hauntingly situated between an AIDS clinic and a hospital graveyard, amazed me. On Saturday we began the daunting task of learning all 65 kids’ names, and we discovered that many are siblings. Without a doubt, some of their parents were treated (or were on the waiting list for treatment) at the very AIDS clinic they now live next door to. Six of them receive their own treatment for HIV there. The kids at Emthunzini Wethemba work hard in school and go to church every Sunday. Somehow, their fearless and admirable leader Sis P instills discipline and sound values into all of them. I’m just thankful to get a glimpse into this extraordinary community. Thank you to the Browns, my neighbors who made this morning of joy on the soccer pitch possible. I will continue to update about our adventures at EW with more pictures and stories.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Peanut Butter Jelly Time

Last Friday I took Nkosi for a run and on my way home, I swung by the office to pick up a sandwich and snack I had left in the fridge there. Didn’t want them to sit in the office all weekend. As I made my way down Queens in the failing light of another beautiful African dusk,  I jogged up behind two young boys, trotting along in barefeet and tattered clothing. Running home from town. They did a double-take when I came up behind them with a dog on a leash. Zimbabweans are terrified of dogs, with no exceptions that I know of. These two boys jumped into the elephant grass on either side of the path to avoid being eaten, but I slowed and told Nkosi to sit. Again, they were amazed that a dog would listen to me and not attack them. Five minutes later, the younger of the two boys had taken the leash from me, the older was holding my hand, and the four of us walked along leisurely. I had greeted them in Ndebele and quickly learned that their English was very poor. They carried a plastic bag and nothing else and their clothes hung off them. Both were extremely skinny. They probably can’t afford school fees. I managed to ascertain that the older was eleven, the younger one nine. They were much too short for their ages. I might have guessed six and nine. Clearly their nutrition at home is insufficient. 

As we walked along, content to giggle whenever Nkosi turned and tried to sniff them, I found myself wishing I had my wallet on me. I would have handed them some cash to take home to their mother. I didn’t even have pockets, out for a jog, carrying nothing but my keys…and two Tupperwares of food. I could have smacked myself in the face. I opened the first container and ripped my peanut butter and jelly sandwich in half, handing one to each of the boys. Then I took the carrots out of the other one, along with a small Jif to-go peanut butter container and handed those to the boys. My aunt had come home from a shopping trip with four cases of portable peanut butter containers after I told her how much I survived on peanut butter and how often we’re on the road for soccer games. Good thinking! The boys went home with a little more nourishment and a new appreciation for dogs. I went home wishing I could give them much more than a sandwich and a few carrots, but even though I’d looked forward to a post-run sandwich, carrying empty Tupperware never felt better.