Nicolas Stebbing reports on his recent visit to Zimbabwe
Harare looks a bit better than it did; some new buildings are going up, some roads repaired; there is a bit more money around. There is plenty in the shops but it is mostly imported and expensive. One is aware the improvement is fragile and could stop at any point. Unemployment is still very high and the slight improvement does not seem to have reached the other towns we visited.
Faithful and enthusiastic
Likewise in the Church – Harare diocese seems to be thriving. I went to mass in three different churches and encountered large numbers of very faithful and enthusiastic worshippers. It is tough for them not having church buildings and having to rent accommodation for their priests. Many things go by the board – the sense of sacred space and place to pray which a Church offers; but it is compensated by the excitement of being a church in exile, on the move, on pilgrimage. The diocese of Manicaland struggles a bit more, being more rural and having left a larger rump in the renegade camp. But again some wonderful priests and people are doing a heroic job.
The house in Harare is turning into a wonderful place, though very crowded. We now have 15 young people and two sisters crammed in a four-bedroomed house, with more sometimes at weekends. The sisters have now got a lot of vegetables growing, almost enough to feed the house, and chickens provide a steady flow of eggs, both for the children’s diet and to sell.
But one of the biggest changes has come through the work of our excellent social worker and a social worker from England, Helen Daws. They have helped our children confront the trauma of their past and be set free from it. In all kinds of imaginative ways they are now helping them be normal children – giving them birthday cakes and cards for instance. Some children still do badly in school but there has been a noticeable improvement over this year. And some are doing really well.
In the Eastern districts, initially, the story was less good. When I saw the children’s school reports I was appalled; about two-thirds had failed almost everything! This made us think seriously about the causes and we came up with interesting answers. Firstly, many of the children have lost both parents and have never been given the chance to deal with this. We have found it so important with our Harare kids that they do this. Now we must give our eastern children the chance to cry too. Then they will be free to get on with school life;
Secondly, most of our children have little idea of what school is for. They like going because they meet their friends, and it is a safe place, and they do not have to herd cattle or work in the fields. But they need to be helped to see how important it is to learn skills, to acquire knowledge, to work together with others, to think independently. We went to the high schools several of our children attend and found the teachers very motivated to helping them. So in the long term we need to work on helping the kids acquire real motivation.
Thirdly, some of our kids are not very bright; some have had such a disrupted education it will be hard to put things right. This raises the question of how long we keep them in school. Are they getting the most appropriate sort of education? In a society which provides jobs only for a very few, how can we help our children to find a way of making a living when
they leave? We need to do a lot more thinking and experiment to try and help our children make the best of things and become well rounded, confident and hopeful young people.
Finally, one of the teachers pointed out that many of our kids probably do not get breakfast before walking long distances to school; the school provides no lunch so they get nothing to eat till they get home and it will be pretty poor quality food even then. No wonder they cannot focus!
What to do?
One little boy called Dick is a great favourite of mine. He is small for his age. He had done so badly this term he would not let me see his report. He told me his father died when he was 4, his mother when he was 7 (both probably AIDS-related). He lives with his grandmother, often has to do the cooking and lives more than an hour’s walk from school. No wonder he doesn’t do well! He also looked bedraggled. We provide school uniforms but his shirt was too small, his shorts far too big, his socks were in tatters and his shoes falling apart.
So we popped Dick in the car and took him to Mutare and simply kitted him out from top to bottom. He was thrilled, not least because he was treated as special. Then we shopped for the rest. We bought 25 packs of rice, cooking oil, sugar, salt and beans to ensure every child had food to last the several weeks. We also bought lunch boxes (so they could take food to school), toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, exercise books, ballpoint pens and a few other basic essentials.
We had told all the kids to come to the mission in the evening. They probably expected to be punished for their poor work. In fact we gave them a party with two large chocolate cakes to help it along. Now they know we care about them. The next phase is to bring our wonderful social worker down from Harare to see what she can do. I am hopeful we will have very different crowd of young people when I go out again in January. ND