In most of our updates, Zimkids Orphan Trust attempts to provide you with an overview of our work and the progress we’re making. But we realized that it might be useful for you to understand a bit more about the immense challenges we face in keeping our young people healthy. So let me tell you the story of two brothers, Pritchard, 14, and Praymore, 11, who recently joined us.
The father of the two boys died of complications from HIV/AIDS, and their mother, with no means of support, quickly remarried. Unwilling to tell her new husband that both she and her sons were HIV positive, she threw away hers and the boys’ medication lest he find it and realized that he’d been deceived. Within months, she was dead and both boys were extremely ill.
They were taken in by their grandmother in a rural village, and she sent them to herd cattle despite their conditions. Their other grandmother in town, who is HIV positive herself and already had three other orphaned children living with her, rescued them. After installing them in her home, she promptly brought them to Zimkids. For the first month, they were so weak and so traumatized that they could barely manage a smile. So malnourished their growth is stunted.
We took them to the hospital and got them on regular anti-virals. And we provide the grandmother with food, clothing and school fees for herself and the children in her care. Praymore has perked up considerably, but with Pritchard, things remain touch and go as he has enormous difficulties keeping down food. Our physician, Sashka Maksimovich, is watching over him. But we’re bracing ourselves for the possibility that he’s simply too weak to thrive.
I wish I could tell you that this story is unusual, but, sadly, it speaks volumes about daily life in Zimbabwe, about how its children are all too often seen as something to be put to use, about its warm hearts without resources, about its poverty, and its appalling lack of health care.
We struggle to keep our children both safe and healthy. Our staff – and all of our older children – watch carefully to see who is growing and who is not, who suddenly lacks energy and who is zooming across the soccer field. When children don’t show up at our Centre, staff members call or stop by to check on them. We feed the young 'uns at the Centre and provide extra food to the undernourished, most often onsite lest their relatives grab what we give them. And Dr. Maksimovich is their steady champion, always there when something unexpected occurs or when the public health system fails them, as it so often does.
Despite our best efforts, over the past 10 years, we have been forced to bury three of our own. With each funeral, we rededicate ourselves, vowing – hoping – NEVER AGAIN.
On any given day at the local clinic in Pumula North, where Zimkids is located, a hundred young women many 15 years old wait to see a nurse with their babies. It seems that teen pregnancy is the rule rather than the exception. Zimkids commitment to our girls is framed by this reality. So when we offer training in the many skills they learn at our center we also hold workshops dealing with this problem. And many or our girls have responded by becoming more involved at the center with a sheer determination not to become another statistic. They ho;d tight onto their dreams. Our counselor – Sithabisiwe, a Zimkids alumna who is raising her two younger brothers – pays particular attention to girls’ needs and works with them and their families to encourage them in achieving their dreams. We had one meeting with a former Zimkid who got pregnant all too young. She shared her experiences and life in an effort to enlighten them about what life is like on the other side of pregnancy.
Still, it’s an uphill battle. Over the past twelve months, three of our teenagers, all under 18 years old, got pregnant.
In the midst of our despair, however, there’s an extremely bright light we want to share, an important reminder about the difference we can make. Sibahlenkosini, who has been with us since 2008, just scored a remarkable 14 points on her Advanced Level high school exams, out of a possible 16 points. It’s a truly stellar achievement that puts her in serious competition for a place in the Faculty of Law at the University of Zimbabwe. We should know soon whether she will be accepted and have begun to put the word out to those interested in helping us help her with tuition.
Sibahle’s father died when she was 8-years-old, and she and her 8 brothers and sisters were raised by her mother, who scrambled for money by selling firewood and sweets by the side of the road. But Sibahle refused to be deterred by her circumstances, inspired, in part, when her sister got pregnant at the age of 16 and admitted how miserable her life had become.
Zimkids has offered Sibahle as much support as possible in her quest for an education. We bought her glasses when we realized she could barely see the chalkboard. We provided food and medical care. And, in line with our policy of pushing our young people to achieve by paying school fees for those who do well, we paid for her Advanced Level studies.
An independent and focused young woman of quiet determination, Sibahle has set her sights very high, on a career in family law, helping women and children much like herself and her mother.
On another front, our outreach program to a rural encampment called Methodist has grown to over 100 children. Our staff and school leavers volunteer on their day off to go there and work with the kids. We also distributed much needed shoes courtesy of the Buckner Foundation. We introduced water baloon games to the kids and they had a ball!
Our Garden continues to provide us with all our vegetable needs under the care of Ngqabutho, Brighten and Zibusiso.
And we just renovated our kitchen! So now we can add tiling and cabinet making to the list of skills our older kids are learning.
Thank you to all our supporters for making Zimkids a true success story. Happy holidays to all.
Zimkids’ latest program is taking our young people 7 miles from our center and a world away, beyond the edge of the city into a small settlement of crude shacks, without water or electricity, into a world where children’s prospects are even dimmer than they are in Pumula, where we operate. 70 percent of the children in the community are orphans; most of the teenage girls already have two or more kids, usually by two or more fathers. So babies are raising babies.
For our older kids, going to Methodist, as the community is called, is giving back, taking their days off to transfer the skills they’ve acquired at Zimkids, bringing joy and knowledge where there is so little. We tried something similar several years back with the families squatting at the dumpsite, but it was simply too far away – and our older kids did not yet have the initiative. That has changed now, and our seniors and alumni are doing an amazing job at Methodist – and we hope to find the money for a vehicle that will allow this to become a formal Zimkids program.
Meanwhile, back at the Center, we’re gearing up for a whole new cohort of kids to enter our vocational training program and become leaders in our outreach effort at Methodist. They just sat their O-level examinations (following the traditional British system, Zimbabwe has two levels of high school, Ordinary and Advanced level, with the latter being primary for those oriented toward university education.) Results will not be out until February, but we expect that most of our young people will not pass since they received little education during primary school, a time when teachers were on strike for several years. Usually, our pass rate is well above the national average, but that’s not saying much since, nationally, only 1 in 5 children pass their exams.
So we’re bringing in supplies for welding and sewing, construction and carpentry – and Samantha is looking forward to extra help in the preschool, where she’ll be training childcare workers.
Our littlest Zimkids celebrated their graduation in late November, and they are more than ready for Grade 1. They not only know the alphabet and basic numbers, taken their first steps toward mastering computers, and have been awash in the books generous donors have been sending their way. While they’re been with us, they’ve been well-nourished, thanks to our feeding program and our abundant garden; well-dressed because of donations of shoes from the Buckner Foundation; and warm because of the Texas grandmothers, who keep making them amazing blankets.
Once they’re in school, we won’t lose track of them, of course, since they’ll be back at “home” with us on weekends and over school holidays.
There are times when we feel that Zimkids has taken on a life of its own as the young people we’ve trained for so many years take on increasing responsibility and help us expand our wings. It’s an exhilarating reality since we’re committed not only to feeding the orphans of Pumula but to training them to lead.
Several years ago, a grant from the U.S. embassy allowed us to install a greenhouse with drip irrigation. It took a while to develop a workable system since we never managed to hit water when we tried to drill a well. But now, our young people have honed their modern agricultural skills. Despite a total absence of rain since April, we are awash in tomatoes, spinach, kale and onions– so the orphans have an abundance of fresh produce.
Our pre-school – run by “alumae” - is humming with energy and excitement. The children are mastering the alphabet, learning their first words in English, playing on our computers, eating nutritious meals – and even developing their skills in sharing by serving lunch to their classmates. Several weeks ago – in the midst of a serious cold snap – they were thrilled at the arrival of stacks of blankets made by a group of generous grandmothers from Texas led by Dee Duhe, shoes from the Buckner Foundation and underwear – a first for many of them – from several donors. They even received new reading material thanks to Adopt-a-Book!
The older children are also moving along to new challenges. Now that our new sewing center is up and running, all the children are learning about needles and thread – and how to take care of and mend their often tattered clothing. The latest shipment we received included ELEVEN sewing machines, thanks to the miraculous Dee Duhe of Plano, Texas. So, not only are our young people now taking care of their own clothing, they’re mastering the basics of cutting and stitching as part of our vocational training program. Under the guidance of two girls who are long-time Zimkids, they are helping to make school uniforms that we will begin selling in November, when parents prepare for the new school year.
Across the compound, other young people are building chairs as part of our carpentry vocational training program, even as their friends are welding shoe racks and figuring out the basics of design. We’ve already had our first orders for their creations – and are confident that more will follow!
Some days, we look at the activity – planned and run by orphans who joined Zimkids seven or eight years ago – and marvel at their skills in organization and their ability to comfort so many young children who live in almost impossible situations at home. Life is incredibly difficult outside our walls: Water and electricity continue to be scarce, the economy has stalled, so unemployment is stagnating at about 90 percent; and the grandparents or other relatives who care for our orphans are staggering under the burden, all too often becoming indifferent if not abusive.
But inside our gates, the Zimkids are smiling. If they are sick, or injured, or upset, they know that they’ll be cared for, whether by our counselor, our doctor, or one of their adopted older brothers and sisters. They never go hungry. And they are learning the skills, both personal and vocational, to build their own futures. What more could we want?
There is one more thing: We’d love you and the American children you know to meet them via Skype. Now that our Internet is working most of the. We’re anxious to set up more conversations between Zimkids and American schools, kids’ clubs or church groups. Our Zimbabwean young people tend to be a bit shy, but we’ve been working to increase their comfortable level, both with the technology and with distant strangers. So if you know a group that might be interested in connecting contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last Saturday, I arrived late at our Center in Pumula, and this is what I found:
Foster Dingani and Collen Makurumidze were training and supervising a crew of younger boys and, in two days, they almost had the brick foundation of our new Sewing Center completed – plumb, square and level! Three years ago, when I told our Seniors that we were going to build the Center ourselves, Foster admits that he thought that I was a crazy old man. Now, he’s the teacher – and I no longer need to get my hands dirty!
Foster didn’t join Zimkids on his own initiative; his grandmother ordered him to attend just after he lost his father and his mother moved back to her rural home, 200 miles away. “For the first year, I only went because I was forced,” he admits. “Then, I wanted to spend all my time; it was just too stressful at home. If not for Zimkids, I don’t know what I’d be doing now. I’d probably be hanging out at the shops drinking like everyone else.”
Having skills is essential for him since he is raising his younger sister and his niece.
Collen, whose father died when he was four years old, was sent to Zimkids by his mother, who lives in an 18x18 foot one bedroom house with Collen, his sister and her two children. He quickly became our “artist in residence,” creating some of our most amazing dolls and teaching our younger children to draw. He and Foster are our resident builders – and Collen has now finished a course in electrical installation.
They haven’t just learned all the basic construction skills. Perhaps more important, they’ve learned how to learn. Recently, they were revamping and updating our solar grid and hit a wall: Something was wrong in one of their connections and they couldn’t figure it out. That night, they each went home and searched the net for answers, intent on finding a solution before the arrival of our solar expert the next day. At 5:30 a.m., Collen called Foster. “I have a couple of ideas,” he said. “Let’s do it. Let’s figure it out!” By 7 am, our mini-grid was functioning perfectly – and Foster and Collen realized the power of not giving up.
As I left the building site, I ran into Lindiwe Mabhena, who wanted to show me the new primary school uniform she’d completed. With Charity, Lindiwe will run the sewing center, a project that will provide income both for our older girls and Zimkids, as well as training for younger girls.
Pauline Mhendo was moving around between the kitchen, where the older girls were cleaning; the resource center, where Sithebisiwe and the group of girls were working with our younger dollmakers; and the playground, where a few of the toddlers from our weekday preschool program were hanging out. “You know, I’ve been thinking,” she said, pulling me aside to talk about her latest idea for cutting costs on the program. That’s Pauline, a seamless multitasker, natural organizer, and superb planner.
Pauline joined Zimkids after the death of her mother in 2005. Just 28 years old, she’d lost her husband ten years earlier. Pauline moved in with her grandmother who sold veggies at a street-side stand, but she, too, passed away, leaving Pauline to live with her aunt and uncle. Pauline was always one of Pumula’s best students, and when she passed her Ordinary Levels with flying colors, we sent her to a church-run boarding school not far from town for her Advanced Levels. Now, two years after she completed her education, she’s essentially acting as our assistant director.
I look around then, in near-awe. We – the trustees and staff, the volunteers and you, the donors – are succeeding almost beyond our wildest hopes.
Not everything is rosy, of course. We still struggle to maintain the health of our HIV-positive young people. And too many families continue to treat our orphans abusively. Most importantly, we’re still stymied by the realities of Zimbabwe: Zimkids is working, but the country is not. After years of runaway inflation that reached 360 MILLION percent, in 2009 government suspended the local currency and moved toward the use of the dollar. The economy began to stabilize and business to rebound. But this year, things have begun sliding back in the wrong direction.
Transparency International Corruption Index ranks Zimbabwe 163 out of 174 countries. So far this year, Zimbabwe’s Registrar of Companies has struck more than 176 companies off the register and they expect to deregister another 634 companies over the next three months. Over 70 percent of the country’s exporting companies have shut down. Every day, we hear about another business that has filed for bankruptcy, another shop that simply can’t make it.
The solar energy company that had hoped to launch Foster and Collen into a business as their subcontractors hasn't had the capital to do so. And while they have both completed advanced training courses – Foster in boilermaking and Collen in electrical installation – neither can find a paid internship, a necessary step for their licenses, and neither can afford to work for free.
For the moment, then, we’re concentrating on helping our beneficiaries develop skills that will allow them to work on their own – whether by selling and installing low-cost solar panels, welding metal burglar bars, or sewing school uniforms. Our kids are ready…all they need is a chance.
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Chair, Board of Trustees