Several years ago I had the privilege of participating in a mission to rebuild a school in Zimbabwe through my Rotary Club. I spent two weeks in a small village outside of Victoria Falls called Chikandakubi. It was by far the most profound and eye opening experience of my life.
After some 24 hours of traveling, our team arrived at the lodge, which was owned by members of the Victoria Falls Rotary club. I was over tired an in sensory overload. Everything was different from what I was “used to”. The sites, smells, and sounds all felt more vibrant then in the states. The beauty of the famed Victoria Falls goes beyond my ability to describe in words. To those who do not live there, Africa has a mystical quality about it – there is temptation to romanticize the landscape.
Unfortunately, there is little else to romanticize about Chikandakubi. The village, like many in Zimbabwe, has been ravished by aids and the vast majority of the population is starving. Most children are either orphans or being raised by their grandparents as the 25 – 35 year old generation has been eliminated by Aids. Some of the children are forced to stay in their compounds to help care for livestock or go out into the streets to generate money as their elders are frail and can not provide for the family. Combine that with the reality that there is a fee to attend school, and you have a large population of 5 – 15 year olds who are not getting an education at all.
Our first day at the school stunned me. From the lodge to the school was about a 45 min. drive through the bush. Because the sand was so soft, we had to park about ½ mile away from the school itself. As we walked carrying bins of supplies (clothes, food, books, pens, toothbrushes, etc) the sound of young voices in song reached out to welcome us. We approached the small, broken fence that surrounded the school to see some 500 students singing us their welcome song (which they greeted us with every morning thereafter). The teachers and head master all stood in line along with several of the curious village elders to greet the Americans. The morning was more ceremonial then I anticipated, filled with impromptu speeches, presentation of gifts, thoughtful thank you’s and the like.
Most of our time spent at the school involved building desks, chairs, and laying cement floors for the broken down school buildings. One building did not have a roof. As members of Rotary we were not permitted to rebuild one, but we found a local carpenter and paid him out of our pockets to get the job done. We helped to serve meals at the school every day, which mostly consisted of a nutritional powder mixed with water. If you saw the water that came out of the well, you’d quickly realize there was nothing nutritious about it.
The children had the most profound impact on me. They were always smiling, singing, wanting to be touched, hugged and played with. Every time I took out my camera scores of children would come out of the woodwork to get their picture taken. We found the time to teach them the basics of baseball and got in a few innings during work breaks. Their enthusiasm for life astounded me. I kept wondering how in the world they could be happy given their circumstances. I am not trying to sound like a snob, but I their level of joy never ceased to amaze me!
As our time to leave drew near, we decided to have a festival for the village. We arranged to purchase several goats, bought rice and vegetables and helped the adults prep a stew on open fires behind the school. I watched as the men of the village slaughtered and skinned the goats, and then lay the skins out to dry, no part goes to waste. The woman cut up the meat and set it in the large stock pots on the fire. We pealed vegetables and prepared the rice. We even attempted to carry buckets of water on our heads (a skill I never mastered) which the women of the village found very amusing. We fed over 700 people that day – I am still trying to figure out how. The line for the food seemed to go on forever. The women scooped stew into a bowl and only allowed one piece of meat per person. They kept a careful watch on the goat meat. If anyone accidentally received two pieces, one of the women would stick her hand in the bowl and return it to the pot.
As I left the school for the last time, I wondered if I actually made a difference. How can five people impact the lives of hundred in just two weeks? We fed them for a day, we left them with school buildings that were more comfortable, created a small library and perhaps we left them with hope as well. We did not change the world, but we did impact a small village in the middle of the bush for the better, even if it was only for a brief time. As I left the lodge for the airport to return home, I dumped out half my suitcase. I figured if the women who worked there could not wear the clothes, they could probably sell them.
I left Zimbabwe a different person then when I arrived. Frankly, I think they gave me far more then I gave them.
Organizations like Rotary International have the capacity to reach out across the world to help those in need, regardless as to what that need is. Rotary Clubs across the globe are involved in disaster relief, clean water projects, literacy projects, peace keeping missions and Rotary International is currently leading the world in the eradication of polio. If you have a project in mind, I strongly recommend that you find a Rotary Club in your area. Your idea can be as small as building a play ground or as large as your mind can conceive. Present your idea to a club or better yet, join and lend a hand. You will find a group of enthusiastic, like minded individuals that seek to empower the world, one person at a time.