Just a few short weeks - how a quick visit made a huge difference (ZAM) (CA)

This morning I woke thinking of my sister in law. She has just returned from Zambia and all the love and frustration and friendship that Africa holds for us are fresh in her. When I spoke to her for the first time since she returned, I could hear it in her very voice: Africa is front-and-centre in her life and purpose again. Life in North America luxuriously crowds out thoughts of Africa like a fluffy towel blots out the very moisture on our skin before we can absorb it all. Africa never leaves us, it's infused into us, but it can be diluted by all that our regular life entails.

I caught a little of that urgency this week, speaking with Kim. Her stories and updates on those I love and miss were like stories from a family reunion! Many good things, many difficult-to-hear things. Some continue to break that part of my heart that Africa has infiltrated.

This week I had a letter from a young woman I adore who is going on missions for a few weeks this Summer. She will be volunteering her time in Romania. She possesses a beautiful heart that is passionate for others. It has led her to pursue a nursing degree and I can't even fathom the amazing things that this knowledge, combined with her passions, will mean for our world. One of the things she addressed in her letter updating friends and family, was the thought that perhaps spending a lot of money to go and spend only a few weeks with children abandoned to orphanages in Romania may not be the most effective way to minister. This letter is for her, but it's also for each of us.

Dear Erin,

Never underestimate the way that your presence will change the lives of those you encounter.

Let me share a story from Kim's recent trip back to Mulenga, Zambia. You see, a year and a half ago, Kim met a boy named James*. I think he is about 13 or 14. He is the only son of a hardworking, brave and giving woman named Mercy. If you've been following some of these stories, these names will be familiar to you.

On our previous trip, Kim and I were hosted by Mercy during our 'community stay'. We stayed in their tiny cement home that was shared by Mercy, her son, her three daughters and her grandson... And a hen or two! Each night James slept on a couch that had no mattress or cushions, simply slats.

This young man began to attend school and the feeding programme that Hands at Work had started in Mulenga. Earlier this year we learned, here in Canada, that he is one of four students that had passed the entry requirements for high school this coming year. Imagine his potential! He's bright, agile, comical and yet possesses a maturity that I don't think most boys gain until they've hit their early thirties. His family places a lot of pressure on him to do well in school, to find employment and to care for them. He shoulders it with a simplicity as if every day presents him with opportunities to fulfill these responsibilities.

When we left the village, James' face was the one seared into my memory. This young boy, with tears streaming down his face, gave us one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful quotes of our time together. He turned to Kim and said, "My heart is hurting and I don't know why." In just a few weeks, our hearts were intertwined in a way that can't happen from a distance.  And distance is hard on hearts that are intertwined: it stretches them in ways that are, at best, uncomfortable and at worst, painful.

Fast forward a year and a half and Kim was back in Mulenga where she ran into James' younger sister, Ruth. She was told that he hadn't been feeling well and that he hadn't been out of the house much. Kim, anxiously wanting to see him, asked the local care workers to take her to his home. When they arrive they were unprepared for what they would encounter. James was on the couch, lethargic and barely able to keep his eyes open. It was readily apparent that he was seriously ill. Mercy had been working in a nearby city during the week and, in that time, his health had steadily deteriorated without anyone being aware. This is not the case of a negligent mother, it is the reality of life in an environment where mothers must leave their children alone for days, some far younger than Mercy's, while they seek work to feed them.

Kim sat down near James and he utters the only word of the time that they are together: "Kim!" And she began to cry uncontrollably. 

Kim and the care workers took James to a clinic where he was required to pay roughly $4 USD to be seen by a doctor. Sometimes that minimal fee, and the cost of a taxi to the clinic, are the very obstacles that stand in the way of preventing small illnesses from becoming deathly threats. The care workers filled out the paperwork, paid the fee and waited with him. He was diagnosed with malaria and the group was told that had they waited another day, he would likely have died at home. Imagine his mother coming home from work to find her only son had died in one short week. Imagine her daughters and grandson having to care for the details of losing a brother, alone. Not one of them are yet 18 years old. The youngest is only 12.

The care workers took an incoherent James home, put him back on his bed and then sat and prayed for him. Each of them worked out a time that they could return and check on him and would make sure that the medication was being taken and that it was effective.

Erin, this is the difference that a few weeks will make in the life of a child you spend your time with. For James that difference was the only words on his lips when he was in his worst state: The name of someone who brought him hope and love when he needed it. It means that had it not been for Kim's insistence that she wanted to see this boy that she loves and prays for and wonders about, he may not have lived.

Imagine waking from a painful fever and seeing the face of a friend from a year and a half ago and having that name on your lips. I told Kim that I hope someone tells him when he is well that he wasn't hallucinating!

Go to Romania, Erin. Bring it home with you and share it with those around you.


Shelly Vanbinsbergen is a long-standing volunteer with Hands at Work and is particularly involved in the Canadian country office. She resides in Saskatoon and is a member of Hands at Work partnering church, Lakeview.

*Names changed