by Fr. Michael Greene
26 Jan 2010
An incredibly busy and intense day. Our first mission was to try to get some cash. Simple right? They’re on the US dollar here, and there are banks and ATMs and places where you can get a credit card advance. Wrong. Banks are out of cash, nobody takes credit cards, apparently, at least not American ones. We spent two hours trying to locate a place where we could make this work, and to no avail, so, we gave up. It was a little like a game, and Nicolas told us of how relatively tame it is now compared to a couple of years ago, where you had to bring wads of cash into the country, find somebody who knew how to find someone who would change it (illegally) get there without getting mugged, swap your money in on *bricks* of billion dollar notes, carry it away in a gunnysack, and try not to get mugged again. This was just frustrating, and somewhat surreal, because it meant learning some new rules to an old game. It became apparent that there is more than a 30 year technological gap here, and that will have a lasting effect on Zim’s ability to recover and compete in a global market. After giving up on finding cash we did some church errands. We went to the Bp. Gaul theological college, which was recently almost forced out of existence by the police. It was a tragic and run-down place. There is a dormitory, which reminded me of the scavi (archaeological dig) accommodation, only in much worse shape, 12 single rooms house 18 students for 2 years apiece. Then there is the foundation of a chapel which was to be built until the money was stolen by the government. Now a few rusty girders stick out of the ground and piles of bricks lie around it. There is one single other building, which is an administrative office, the chapel, the library (about the size of my personal theology library), and classroom. The property is much more extensive, but disused and grown over except in places where students have planted tomatoes or corn (mielies) to feed themselves. There was no refectory, no common room.
In that immediate neighborhood, the University of Zimbabwe loomed large, it was full of students, even though it was the summer vacs. Nicolas reported that it is a shadow of its former self because most of the respectable academics have fled the country. What will happen when all the good people leave?
We then met with Bishop Chad, who was very gracious and hospitable, and who was glad to receive the letter from Bp. Jeff Lee. He told us in his own words what happened and what was going on, which was pretty close to the stories that I’ve passed along: tear gas, military and police harassment, anger and frustration that he cannot effectively protect his people from persecution, and deep gratitude for our gifts and our expressions of solidarity. Tears welled up in his eyes over the three cases of vestments that we brought, and it seems that there may be a possibility to bring him into the Diocese of Chicago for something soon. He clearly loves his people and works hard to protect them and nurture them.
Then we aimed for an internet café, but we were thwarted and after a lunch of greasy pizza and pasta, we went straight on to Tariro. Our visit there was too short, but we had a chance to interview the kids and let them tell their stories, all of which were heartbreaking on some level, but also inspiring. There are 6 and 7 year olds who are just learning to read and write, there are o-level and a-level students, there are students who are finishing a degree soon, which is testament to the work of the place in and of itself. There is a totally different focus from what I expect the state orphanages are like. The children are encouraged to express themselves, problems and grief issues are not suppressed, and in 18 months there is a marked difference in mental health and social well-being for many of them. A priest of the diocese, who volunteers daily at the house, and who was himself an orphan told me, “All my life I wondered why? Why did this happen to me? Why would a God who loved me kill my parents and leave me on the streets to suffer? And now, here, I have found the answer. All of my experiences were to prepare me to help others in the same situation so that they would not have to suffer so much, and know that there is someone who is like them who suffered in the same way, who loves them, and who has come out to lead a fulfilling life.” I thought that was an impressive thing to articulate, and it revealed a depth and a perseverence of faith that I’ve seldom seen. Recently, he offered a requiem mass for the children’s parents at the house and they each had the chance to say or do something: some read letters to their parents about what they had done since they died; some sang what they remembered as their mother or father’s favourite song, some cried and screamed but were hugged and held by their new brothers and sisters. They look out for each other, they teach each other, the older ones set an example for the younger ones that made most American high schoolers I know seem much younger than they are. There is one house mother for two houses, each with 12-17 kids in them, and each with a few more on the side that are waiting for sponsorship, but who still get help with food and homework pretty regularly. All in all about 47 of them, and counting. They are able to provide school fees and room and board for them for about $3000 per month, there are virtually no administrative fees. Nicolas and Carl do the PR work and some of the logistics, Florence, the house mother does the work of 10 people taking care of them all as her own children, Philip Mutasa, an accountant and insurance salesman handles all the financial details and works there on a daily basis, too. Everything is donated, and everything the kids have is donated: clothes, games, toys, medicine, etc.
Philip was a trustee of the diocese under Kunonga. He now walks with a bad limp, because he tried to expose Kunonga’s embezzlement and his plans to drive stable clergy out, and Kunonga had a hit put out on him. He wants to be a priest. Nicolas asked me to give him some spiritual direction, at least while we’re here. Phew!
Then we returned to our quest for cash, and we had to return to the airport to get the missing bag, which arrived without incident or extra fee and we got some cash at last at the airport, this will clearly be an ongoing saga, though. We drove through downtown Harare at rush hour, which was pretty intense: prostitution, drugs, normal people living their lives not knowing the extreme poverty they live in. That gave me lots to think about, mostly about the fear that many Americans live in, of some of these people’s ordinary life circumstances, but here they were, going to work, looking for work, holding hands, carrying kids around, going shopping, and generally making their way through life. We headed home, where the power had been out all day, to relax and gear up for tomorrow’s trip to Shearly Cripps children’s home outside town past the match box cities of high-density housing. I’m grateful for an evening of solitude and a nice quiet thunderstorm to sleep through.