When you look at a picture like this, how do you respond?

We asked ourselves this question every day when we were on the Hands at Work in Africa (Canada) mission trip to Zimbabwe, in April 2010.  We saw children like this everywhere we went: big smiles, joyful spirits, hungry, and destitute, often alone in dealing with crushing poverty without parents around to help them navigate their way. 

Eleven volunteers left Canada March 26 to spend two weeks working in the Hands at Work project in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Sakubva is the name of the slum area in Mutare , and it houses the poorest of the poor in the city.  Thousands are orphans.  Those living there struggle with HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria.  Challenges are everywhere and for our Canadian team, it was an eye-opener of heartbreaking proportions that faced us every day with this question.

Our first morning in Mutare we met with the local Hands team of Farai Gunhe, Barbra Teiwa and Marc Damour as well as Emily Dinhira from the Hands at Work Hub in South Africa, who was in Zimbabwe to provide training to a new group of community volunteers.  They told us of the long term strategic direction for Hands at Work in Africa.  How Hands at Work was committed to helping local African leaders equip local African volunteers to help African people find ways of dealing with the challenges in their lives that wouldn’t create vulnerable dependencies on outside agencies or groups.  The goal is to equip individuals and groups to care for one another through their own creative ideas, hard work, and personal resilience.  They are to be the hands and feet of Jesus.  It is a tall order, given the magnitude of health, political and economic challenges facing the people.  But, despite the overwhelming difficulties, we saw this approach bearing fruit. 

In Mutare, Hands at Work partners with local community based volunteer organizationer called Tafara.  They advocate on behalf of orphans and vulnerable children they ‘adopt as their own - God's children they call them’.  These volunteers face the same poverty and barriers as those they care for yet they work as a group to solve problems for others by employing solutions involving self-sacrifice, ingenuity and the belief that it’s the right thing to help one another.  Stuart, their leader, would often remind them they needed to find solutions that didn’t involve money;they needed to think harder and deeper than money as the cure-all.  They visibly model Christ’s imperative to feed the hungry and care for the widows and orphans.  We were humbled by their example, hard work, and generosity. 

Our group of Canadian volunteers participated alongside Tafara and Hands in three ways:  we cleared ground, planted a garden to harvest food for the feeding centre, and provided tools and fertilizer .

Our work was physically demanding and the Tafara volunteers worked right along with us to get the fertile ground ready, but it was also rewarding as we saw straight rows of sprouting vegetables replace what was once an overgrown dump.

Tafara volunteers go into the tiny and crowded homes of those in Sakubva they care for, and we accompanied them into these homes.  We visited and prayed with people who were recovering from illness, dying of HIV/AIDS, children facing life alone, and those alienated from their families because of dissension.  Some were alive with faith that the Lord God would see them through; others were despondent and weary.  With all, we prayed for mercy and healing and where we could we performed helping activities.  For some this meant taking them to the hospital and paying for treatment.  For others it meant providing rental income for a short period to tide them through impending difficulties.  For each person we struggled with the question - How do we respond?  Money was often our first response to the situations we witnessed, but it was not always the best response as we learned it could create an unwitting dependency counterproductive to their long term sustainability.

We also supported the local volunteers at the feeding centre and its completely outdoor ‘kitchen’ (with bonfire used for cooking) and the 125 orphaned children who come for food.  Through Hands at Work sponsors, each child receives 1 meal a day, 5 days a week.  It is a place that connects them to each other, with older ones watching out for younger ones, and to the Tafara volunteers who know them and advocate for them in the community.  It is a home, and a ‘touch-point’ for orphans who have no other place to turn.  We helped with the cooking, serving and playing.  In the children we saw the full range of emotions from sullenness to joy, from sharing to hoarding, from reasonable health to HIV/AIDS.  We heard their daily struggles to survive alongside their hopes for a better future.  We watched them come and go from the feeding centre, through rough and dangerous parts of town, bare-footed, often raggedly clothed, and asked ourselves, “how should we respond?.  It wasn’t easy to know the answers to the question, but we did respond by committing resources towards the planned new Hands at Work feeding centre in Sakubva and the sponsorship of more children in the feeding program.

Of lasting impact in Sakubva and, in our own lives, were the dedicated, selfless Tafara volunteers we worked alongside in the community.  Guided and encouraged by Pastor Stuart, these women are truly remarkable in their service to the orphans and vulnerable children.  To help them provide for their own family needs, our Team chose to help support their business initiative of developing a chicken farm.  Their goal in seeking support is three-fold: financial resources from the farm to support their needs as volunteers, provision of reasonably priced chicken for the feeding centre and sales to the broader community to meet a market need.  We look forward to progress reports on this important, locally-proposed initiative. 

Arriving back in Canada does not mean Zimbabwe is behind us as a distant memory as it is still present with us every day.  Having seen and experienced the vulnerability and self-sacrifice of local volunteers living in poverty and difficult circumstances BUT reaching out to help others, and now with our Team back in the comfort of our Canadian lives, the compelling question seems even more important: How do we respond?

The picture at the beginning of this writing is of a family in the Honde Valley.  The eldest child is 10.   Occasionally, when their grandmother isn’t too ill with HIV/AIDS she comes to stay with them.  Mostly she is absent and they care for themselves under the watchful eye of Hands at Work volunteers in the area.  Look at them.  They are just children and they must feed, clothe, and keep themselves safe.  What is so beautiful in this picture is that in posing for it, they all held each other’s hands.  I can’t help but think that on some level, that is the answer to the question.  It is in linking hands, ideas, commitment, determination and financial resources that we can bring the future into these children’s lives that they long for.  They must know they aren’t alone and forgotten by the world.  Hands at Work, and partner organizations like Tafara, do this on the ground.  We can all share in this by volunteering with them, and then finding ways when we return home to spread the word of their need, the work being done and the work yet to come.  We must draw on our faith, just as our brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe do, to each find our answer to the question.    Wherever we can we must continue to provide resources that bring food, adult guidance, faith and hope.