After twenty-six hours of travel – including a five-hour delay on the side of the highway when the bus broke down and a six hour ride in a mini-bus called a “combi” – I arrived in the dark, in the rain, on the doorstep of a woman I have come to consider family. Many throughout rural Marange, Zimbabwe, also know her as Auntie Paula.
I met Paula in 2008 when I came to volunteer at Murwira Children’s Home, the orphanage she founded in Zimbabwe. Since my first visit, I have been back every year: the small cluster of cement and asbestos buildings now feels like my second home. I couldn’t stay long in Johannesburg without making a trip to see the children, whom I think about and worry about no matter the distance between us.
The morning after reaching Paula’s modest cottage in Mutare, we drove about an hour to reach the orphanage, located in the rural area of Marange. The area had been Tribal Trust Land – unwanted by whites for farming and thus demarcated as a place to force native Africans during colonial times – and it is still one of the poorest parts of the country. Ironically, it is also one of the richest since alluvial diamond deposits, perhaps the largest in the world, were recently discovered there. But the wealth just over the large rocky kopje is unfathomable at the orphanage, where villagers line up most days to beg for food or work. The orphanage not only provides for around thirty children at a time, it also employs about seventy people from the community – most out of charity more than need. Paula’s kindness is inexhaustible, and she helps almost everyone who comes to the gate, which is an endless task in a country like Zimbabwe. Over the past decade, Zimbabwe’s economy collapsed, and a still tenuous political situation has slowed any kind of recovery. The rains haven’t come again this year, and widespread hunger is certain when winter begins in June. But even now, funds are stretched as Paula manages numerous projects in addition to the orphanage, such as organizing operations for babies with hydrocephalus and feeding thousands of children every weekday at primary schools in the area.
Though it is hard to stand so close to such suffering, I keep coming back. I don’t feel like I can turn away, and I must see the children. They need to know that people in their life care and won’t abandon them. Even some of the smallest children remembered me when I arrived, calling out “Auntie Geta” and racing to throw themselves around my legs. I am endlessly heartened by how joyful the children at Murwira Children’s Home are. Many have endured the worst kinds of abuse, sometimes from family members. Other children were “dropped babies,” one boy even found in a pit toilet with worms crawling out of his nose. But at the orphanage they sing and play and take care of one another. It’s all heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time – a strange feeling that Zimbabwe often gives me as I see the strength and spirit of people struggling in the worst of situations.
Since tasks are incessant at Murwira Children’s Home, I was put to work right away. Driving the old truck with the stick shift on the left side, I helped deliver food aid to homes out in the bush, often using footpaths or ox-cart roads. Another job of any driver at the orphanage is to take patients to the rural hospital near the junction where the paved road ends or all the way to the general hospital in Mutare. Waiting for one of our own babies to be examined, I spoke with an old woman who had walked ten kilometers over rocky terrain pushing her sick grandchild in a wheelbarrow.
I still found time to spend with the children. One of my favorite activities at the orphanage is to walk up the “mountain.” All but the babies are able to climb, and we usually set off in a large group – the older boys racing ahead to hide and jump out at us, grunting to mimic the baboons that live on the mountain. The older ones help the little ones get up the big rocks, and often everyone breaks out into song. We usually stop at a cliff halfway up to yell down to the workers and children left behind in the yard. From there, we can see most of the village. Though the rock is hot, we catch a breeze so high. The children collect bathing stones to rub away calluses. One presents me with a snail shell as a present. For wild fruit trees, we stop, and the children’s fingers become stained with juice. One of the little boys offers me a sour berry—one I know I don’t like—and tells me, “it’s OK, Auntie. When you’re black, you’ll eat it.” Sometimes we climb all the way to the cell phone tower at the top of the mountain—the “booster” stood incomplete for years but was finished quickly after the mining companies moved into Marange. We stay until the shadows grow long, and the children remind me that they must fetch water for bathing from the well. So we slip down the loose stones, and return to the orphanage gate.
I didn’t begrudge the seventeen-hour bus ride back to Johannesburg. Seeing the kids was worth the trip. They asked me when I was coming back. I said that I didn’t know, but that I promised I would be back. “I must go back to school,” I said. Even the younger ones nodded in approval. They understood.