Wednesday, October 22, 2008
The Mothers of Matero
At an age when most women may be thinking of retirement, a small group of Zambian grandmothers have embarked on a mission to help their fractured community in the fight against Aids and poverty. In the country's largest and oldest compound, the 19 women volunteers who make up Kwasha Mukwenu work tirelessly feeding families and educating orphaned children.
Steam rises from the freshly cooked nshima porridge as the famished kids patiently wait their turn in the queue. Three women are bent double serving ladles of the porridge from a huge vat to children who may wait another 24 hours before the next, and the same, meal. Rosemary Phiri, a retired primary school teacher, is a firm believer in a hearty breakfast. "The children must eat before class starts or they do not learn. You can't learn anything on an empty stomach."
Mama Rosie, as the children affectionately address her, explains that despite being a mother of five and a grandmother of four she has decided to start teaching again. "If the children don't go to school they look as though they're missing something. Now they are comparing themselves to the school-going children of Matero – its good for them. We only have one blackboard and a few donated books and pens but they enjoy it."
Class begins around 9am with the children huddled round the blackboard reciting rather anomalous English words, each chorus echoing around the tiny room. It is perhaps the archetypal image of an African education, but it is one that belies recent statistics. According to the UK Department for International Development (DFID), primary enrolment rates in Zambia have been falling for some years: in 1996 the gross enrolment rate was two thirds that in 1985. It is estimated that some one third of the country's children fail to attend primary school. The underlying cause is always the same: poverty and Aids.
"Kwasha Mukwenu: it means to help a friend in need. And there are plenty of our friends that are in need," explains Rosemary, one of the founding members of the group. "It's not easy to care for children that are not yours, but because of that love towards them and all our neighbours, we can manage." And today, they support 536 families and over 2,000 children in the Matero compound, which lies to the north-west of Zambia's capital, Lusaka. It is a sad irony that the community, out of which Zambia's independence was born and then realised in 1964, is now home to so many families dependent on others for survival.
The women's headquarters is a shell of a disused scouts' building, in the heart of the district. The one room still intact serves as office, meeting room and classroom for the sixty youngest children who come to the centre everyday. Where the larger NGOs within the HIV/Aids sector have leaflets on anti-retro viral drugs, vehicles handing out boxes of free condoms and the financial support of Western governments, the women of Kwasha Mukwenu have nothing but hard work and love.
In 1991, 120 women came together to help absorb the increasing number of children being left without parents, relatives, food and an education. "We saw a continual process of people dying and leaving children. So we got all the women in the community together to discuss this issue and said yes, something needs to be done", says Elizabeth Chilala, the original father, and mother, of Kwasha Mukwenu. "And we are still here. Anyway, how could we stop when the number of children coming to us grew every day?"
Understanding the impact the Aids epidemic has had in Africa is difficult to fathom. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa no neighbourhood has been left untouched, as Elizabeth points out: "we may not all be infected, but we are all affected". The statistics are frightening. Eighty per cent of Zambians live in poverty, the nationwide infection rate hovers around 20% and the country has one of the highest levels of orphanhood in the world. Nearly half of all children have lost a parent, while three quarters of Zambian families are caring for at least one orphan. Currently there are 850,000 children who have lost both parents due to Aids, by 2010 it is estimated that this figure will be close to two million.
For a country often seen as an island of peace around a sea of chaos – Zambia borders the Congo, Angola and Zimbabwe – their cohesive community spirit has been dealt a cruel blow by the Aids pandemic. "In the past, if your sister died then you would take in her children, they just come in because it was like their other home," explains Rosemary. "But now because of Aids, poor conditions and poverty, people cannot cope. Most families have reached a saturation point, they cannot take in any more orphans. So, Kwasha Mukwenu is the big family because we have to be."
At its most common denomination it is simple mathematics that reveal the true impact of the Aids pandemic on orphans and vulnerable children. It is when a guardian cannot take in a dead sibling's offspring or cannot give the orphan children as much food as their biological children. As Rosemary puts it: "If I have five children and my sister, who has maybe four, dies, who is going to look after those children? They are all going to come to me. I now have nine mouths to feed but only food for five."
Increasingly, caring for Zambian's children is becoming the domain of the elderly as a whole generation of young adults, the sons and daughters of these guardians, disintegrates. As Mr Mayeche laments, "too many people are dying too soon". Funerals have become daily events and mourners queue at the city cemetery to bury the dead, leaving behind those who must feed, educate, care for and love the next generation.
As I leave the women to stir nshima and stitch rugs, Rosemary calls after me: "We Zambian women have a voice you know. We are mothers with a voice and we are using it." The rest of the women laugh uncontrollably at this. Yes, they do have a voice and thank God that they do.
This next week, I will be finalizing the book collection and hopefully shipping the books off to Destiny by November. Thanks to everyone who has played such a huge role! I will be acquiring my final donations, from Regents School of Austin tomorrow.
Overall, people have donated close to 800 books, a mix of adult, child and adolescent. This is amazing and I know the community of Matero will be very blessed by them.
Despite such a successful book drive, my heart can't help but break for my friends and family there that need so much more than books. Please lift the school of Destiny and the church up in your prayers, and ask for God's divine favor and provision for them as they struggle through the daily challenges of life.
To my Zambian friends visiting me here on this internet interface, I love you so much and think about you everyday. Nakuyewa, nikukonda. Nali ku temwa sana sana. Shalenipo Mukway. Our God saves.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
I just finished this very inspiring story about an Arab-American man who was once a sniper in the PLO under Yassar Arafat. The book is his life story about how he grew up an enraged, renegade rebel persecuting Christians in the name of justice to becoming an advocate of reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians. How, might you ask? The only answer, Jesus. Along the way, you will learn an incredible amount of history regarding the regions of Israel/Gaza Strip/Jordan as well as gain much insight to the origins of the tensions between these people groups, and what the Bible has to say about it all.