The no-man’s land in between Musina, South Africa, and Beit Bridge, Zimbabwe, is a dusty tangle of long lines and barbed wire, all divided by the Limpopo River. I had crossed this border in February but was shepherded through the process by a Greyhound bus driver in the haze before dawn. This crossing I make by car, and I arrive mid-morning on the last Saturday of the month. Since Zimbabwe’s economic collapse, countless Zimbabweans have made the journey to South Africa to find work. The last Friday of the month is payday in South Africa, and it seems that all of Zimbabwe is in line, waiting to bring money home. The crossing takes more than three hours.
Late that night, I arrive at Paula Leen’s little cottage. It always feels like a grandmother’s house, cozy and familiar and offering the comforts of a hot bath when I arrive there from long stays at the rural orphanage. I have spent more time here over the past four years than I have at my real grandmother’s home in southern Missouri. Though it is late, Paula insists on driving out to the orphanage. She lets me sleep, promising to catch me up on the news the next day. The stories are endless. Every day an unexpected catastrophe arises. Zimbabwe is unpredictable, especially when one is trying to care for thirty children and practically a whole village. When there is suffering in the community, the villagers turn to Paula for help. And she does whatever she can to help. Despite having spent more than a decade in a country where hardship is quotidian, Paula will not stand idle while people are hurting—especially children. However, this means that Paula endures sleepless nights, driving emergency cases from the rural area to the hospital, and little rest, delivering food to the poor, the old, and the disabled.
I’m glad we make the late night drive out to the orphanage when I wake to the sounds of the children doing their Sunday chores. I hear my name. Our children are as charming as ever, and bigger, too. Visiting the orphanage since 2008, I have been able to watch many of them grow. One of the boys now dwarfs me. Several years older than most of the other children, he has always been a help to volunteers, whether tinkering with the finicky VCR for a Saturday night movie or helping to arbitrate a dispute between the little ones. Living in an orphanage is particularly hard for teenagers, who yearn for the freedom most young adults have in the rural area—basically that of adults. In some traditions in the rural area, girls can be married after their first menstruation. Perhaps even more frustrating than not being able to go raise hell with friends whenever he pleases, a teenager would be acutely aware of not having the same family life as his peers. At least this teenage boy is smart and athletic and handsome and makes friends easily (OK, I think that about all the kids at Murwira Children’s Home.) I felt acutely aware of the vastly different home life this boy has from his peers when I went with him to the insensitively titled “Parent-Teacher Day” at his rural secondary school. Paula is usually far too busy to attend events like this. I was happy to be there to go with him—though he warned me that we might be there for most of the morning. He was right.
After many frustrating encounters with Zimbabwe’s schools, I was expecting chaos. In 2008, the children missed weeks of classes during teachers’ strikes and election preparations. Again and again I visited schools from 2008 to 2010 to find teachers talking amongst themselves as the children were unsupervised in classrooms or running around the yard. It was hard to blame the teachers, who were either not getting paid or earning wages far below the poverty line during this time. However, this visit in 2012, I was impressed to find the headmaster of Nharira Secondary School sitting at a desk beneath a tree to greet the students and parents (and me). He knew my kid’s name and gave us a sheet with the list of all the classes available and spaces for the teacher and for me to sign. Next we went from long shotgun building to long shotgun building, looking for his teachers. Each teacher sat behind a table and a long line of parents. The teachers looked polished in nice clothes; the parents looked dusty in old garments. The orphanage truck was one of two vehicles in the schoolyard, while several hundred people were waiting in the lines. These parents had sacrificed to pay their children’s school fees. This year’s harvest was not good. Neither was last year’s. And the year’s before. Not only has Zimbabwe’s economy crumbled, but the rains have also been irregular over this dry area in the east of the country. The teachers spoke to the parents in Shona, so I could not listen, but the parents looked proud. And I felt proud when my kid’s first teacher said how clever he was. And his grades were good. But they were slipping. He was hanging out with a bad crowd, his teacher said. Boys who didn’t do their homework. The next teacher said the same. And the next. And the next. I talked in a low voice as we waited in line, telling my kid that there would be opportunities for him if he did well in school. Volunteers had come through the orphanage and liked him; they might be willing to help donate to a college fund for him. But he needed the grades. He nodded. He promised he would study for his next tests. But I would leave Zimbabwe the next week, and he would be there with all the pressures a teenager faces anywhere. And why would you do well on a test when your friends would not do well? And everyone around you was going to stay in that village and try to get some land to farm or try to get a job at the diamond mines (if they have a cow to pay off the chief). But he doesn’t have a family there to help him with land or the cow he would have to pay the chief. I hope he is studying now.
Like the other children, he has overcome unthinkable hardships and abuse. I find it hard to give him advice when I should be asking him how to be so strong and brave. While I urge him to study, I know he must also help at the orphanage. All the children must draw water from the well—a well that is farther away from the orphanage than the other ones that have gone dry. The children carry bucket after bucket as the moon hangs low and the sky grows dark: one bucket for bathing, one for washing school clothes, one for the kitchen.
Before I go back to South Africa, I ask Paula how New Dawn Rotary Club in Johannesburg can help her. The Club is planning a holiday dinner in December to raise money for Murwira Children’s home. Paula says that only a thousand dollars would pay for a drip irrigation system for the vegetable garden. Now they are wasting fuel, which is getting more and more expensive, hauling water from the river to the orphanage in drums in the back of a truck. I tell her we will raise what we can, and she is happy to hear it. More vegetables would help ease the high groceries bills and potentially bring in a small income for the orphanage. The small request could have great benefits. Still, they need more.