It may not seem to be the case, but it was a joyous occasion. We had been welcomed to the village of Thange because our hosts, the African Brotherhood Church and the Canadian Baptist Ministries, have taken a unique, and powerful approach to helping some of the many orphans in this country. Local groups of women have organized themselves to help keep orphaned children in their own homes – close to family members and within their communities. One of the ways these amazing African women do this is by supporting widows, widowers and child-led households. They call themselves the Guardians of Hope.
When we arrived in the village, a 4-hour drive from Machacos, they had already prepared for us the delicious milky tea that has so often been our welcome, along with sweet yams and hard-boiled eggs. Later, we toured the fields, the dispensary, the small dormitory, and the sewing class where 8 young girls shared one sewing machine; we asked to see their work and they shyly showed us the dresses they had sewn out of brown manila paper, because fabric is too expensive.
Next, benches from the church were brought under a wide, sheltering Acacia tree. The men from the village mostly watched, but the women and children shared with us poems and songs and we joined them in dancing. While the lunch of rice and potatoes, chicken, goat and vegetables was being prepared, we all sat around the tree to hear the stories we had asked them to tell us, so we could understand their challenges. Judy, who you will certainly hear more about, translated for us from Kamba; I can’t say whether I have captured their cadence, but I faithfully transcribed their words. I hope this isn’t too hard for you to read. As I said, it was a joyous occasion because things are getting better. Only one woman cried as she told her story.
I am Regina. My husband died, but I am living positively. I was the first to come out in my village. These people with me are also living positively.
Beside Regina were several men and women and three young children: Lucy, a small 13 year old who had been holding my hand all morning, Mazioki, a little girl in a blue dress who had coughed so desperately during the singing, and Maziani,, a serious 11-year-old boy who needed a pair of shoelaces.
I go into the community and help people with AIDS to come out. There was a stigma before, and we couldn’t go out into the community, but now it is better. Now people know their status, and they can get their ARVs. I also arrange transport to get the ARVs.
Nutrition is a big problem. ABC has trained us to make gardens, but some pe0ple are too weak to get water. We are supposed to eat fruits, bananas, other things, but we can’t afford it. In the hungry times we don’t eat every day. I pray ABC won’t ever forget about us.
Next one of the group leaders stood up.
I am Alice and I am the secretary of our group. We have 14 committee members, 101 general members and 252 orphans.
Before we began we had orphans and widows living without hope. Our pastor received a training in counseling and when he came back we decided to start a group and invite everyone to join us to make the group strong.
The first thing we did was gather what food and clothes we had. Then we collected more. We wrote a report to ABC church about our wok with the orphans, and when they heard our story they helped us. We received a training in capacity building then we started moving ahead.
ABC gave us 34 goats, so we shared them, 3 members to 1 goat. Now every member has a goat. They also helped us with school fees and uniforms. We also give 15 girls sanitary pads each month and support 14 members to travel to get ARVs.
Another widow came forward, speaking in a quiet voice.
I am Zilena Titus. Before the group started I felt lonely. Then I realized I was not alone. I want to thank the Canadians especially. At the time there was a lot of hunger. They provided food. We are milking goats and we are happy. My daughter is now a preacher and she brings home bread. Even though we are widows we are not lonely anymore.
The next woman was quite ancient, but danced about with a fierce energy, her eccentricities tolerated by all. Her antics provided the village with quite a lot of amusement.
I am Mama Ndau. I used to have many problems when I was alone. I didn’t have a blanket. I used to put two gunny sacks on me, one on the top and the other on the bottom. My grandchildren would sleep inside gunny sacks. When I became sick I have to get medicine from the trees. But God sent the people from Canada and now I have medicine for my eyes.My two grandchildren are orphans. They were not able to go to school. They wore gunny sacks. I had no clothes. I could not plait my hair. Now I have a blouse and a skirt and I am happy.
We also have a goat to give us milk, and three kids. And we enjoy our nights because we each have a blanket.
I am trying here to transcribe as faithfully as possible what the women said.
My name is Esther. The group has been giving us food and we benefit from the goats who give us their milk. My grandchildren were chased from school because they did not have uniforms. The group bought us uniforms and the children went back to school.
I had been sitting beside the next woman to speak, and she had been leaning forward and coughing quite distressingly.
My name is Cambo. I am a widow. I was left with a 1-year-old baby, so I had to try to breastfeed.
The grandmother indicated her flattened breasts.
The group helped me raise my grandchild. Without the group, we didn’t even have food. I was walking almost naked. I didn’t have shoes. Now my grandchild is 12. I am happy.
This is where she broke off, crying, and went back to sit on one of the benches under the tree.
My name is Elizabeth Minanzo. When my son died I was left with six orphans. We had no clothes, no food. The group gave us clothes, blankets and even mattresses. The continue to pay school fees. Now my grandchildren are grown. That is my granddaughter Susan there.
What we really need is water. The river is far away, and it ends up drying. We have no borehole. We wanted to sell the mangoes from the tree, but when the blossom comes out there is not enough water for the mangoes. Sometimes the rains don’t come for 5 years.
There’s nothing I can add to these women’s stories. I’ve tried to be faithful to them that’s all.
One thing Peter, Becka, Wendy, Sean, Rick and I have decided as a group is that if we want to help in this beautiful country the only way to do it is to support the local changemakers, strong village women like the Guardians of Hope who have organized themselves to help their neighbours.
We were all so impressed by Regina, who spoke about the need to build their capacity to help the widows and orphans they haven’t yet been able to reach. They have done magnificent work decreasing the number of children born with AIDS, and helping keep those alive who do have AIDS. They deserve our help.