What we witnessed today has simply been heartbreaking. Its not too often that I’ve been rendered speechless but here I was. I’ll do my best to put that speechlessness all into words here I’m sure, but at the time I’m feeling a mixture of shock and sorrow that has left me tearful, I’m not afraid to admit.
Today we visited a Zimbabwe orphanage.
Forget what you know. Forget what even you think you know about orphanages. There are no nuns ruling the roost with a firm but caring hand. There are no precocious ginger haired girls breaking into song every 5mins. There are certainly no adoptive parents queuing up to take a child home, let alone foster parents. This felt more like a dumping ground for those who had no one left to care for them. They are a combination of HIV/AIDS orphans, abandoned street children and those who’s mothers died before they had even left hospital after giving birth.
What does all of that actually mean though? What exactly is a HIV/AIDS orphan? Well, its not pretty, let me tell you. AIDS was all over the news in the 80’s, everyone was talking about it, you couldn’t turn on the TV without hearing about it, but since then its that thing that those with a crude sense of humour, myself included, have used as some sort of joke.
“I’ve had a sore throat for a few days, what do you reckon it is?”
“It’s probably AIDS mate.”
Writing that now, though, doesn’t make me smile, let alone laugh. This isn’t a joke anymore, if it ever should have been.
So imagine you and/or your wife/husband have somehow contracted HIV/AIDS… I know you’ll have to really use your imagination as its not something we in the western world think about, but here it is a reality. Its at epidemic levels and a good reason why the life expectancy is so low (58 years). So imagine you are married, and now imagine that society states that you are not a real woman until you have given birth, you are not complete unless you are a mother. What do you do about that? Your natural urges and social norms force you to have a child. In doing so you both contract HIV/AIDS and you can’t afford treatment. That child somehow makes it through to full term and is born disease free, but you, as parents, are not long for this world. You both die within days, weeks, months or even years of each other, but you die nonetheless. Your child is now alone, and again society states that they cannot be adopted either. Local superstitions preach that you can’t take someone else’s child as their parents spirits will follow you. So, that child that was likely with their parent as they drew their final breath in hospital, is then left there, with no one to take care of them. No aunt or uncle, no friendly strangers, no rich couple to come and make you a princess like in the movies.
What does it mean to be an abandoned child then? Well, you know you see the adverts in the months leading up to holidays that says “A Dog Is For Life Not Just For Christmas”? We all know and understand that, right? Yet every year the papers report kittens in rivers, dogs tied to lampposts and left, pets of all manners left here there and everywhere as their owners didn’t want them anymore. Here in Zimbabwe, this happens to children too. The reasons are obviously far more complex than simply not being wanted anymore, but for whatever reason a number of these children were taken somewhere, far from their homes and left to fend for themselves. Some so young that they couldn’t, even with all the luck in the world on their sides, have hoped to last a night, let alone live a life worth living.
You are alone in the world and then you are sent here:
Poverty is an obvious likely culprit, but one child we met today was living happily with his father and his new wife. His father sadly died, as do so many when they have so little, and within days his stepmother moved home without telling him where they were going. He was left to fend for himself and ended up one of 16 such children in this 3 bedroom house acting as the only orphanage in the area for miles around.
Far from being in an orphanage like in the movies, though, this felt like a house of horror.
We had arranged to meet Mrs Magama at 8.30am through a connection who’d also put us in touch with the 3 school’s we’ve already visited. She’s been looking after these children since 2008 almost single handedly and seemed an incredibly compassionate and kind woman. She is clearly overwhelmed by the enormity of her task as a VOLUNTEER, but trying her best all the same. She gets nothing from the state, no earnings from the children and yet has a full time job and an orphanage to run too. She’s as close to a saint as you can find in these parts.
Taking a taxi through the township to meet her we stuck out as the the only white people for miles around but the pouring rain was enough to take much of the attention away from us, and on to trying to stay dry and avoiding puddles the size of small ponds. Upon arrival we were warmly welcomed and brought into the house and thats when the understanding of the sheer poverty hit us. There was an open fire in the corner of the kitchen where one of the orphaned girls was warming up porridge for the rest of the children. The battered pots rested on a piece of cast iron over the smouldering ends of three tree branches that were being used to fuel the only cooking facilities in the house. In turn, this was also the only heating they had. The smoke and fumes filled our lungs and we were informed that although they had an electric oven, the fuses couldn’t cope with it and even if it did, they couldn’t afford the bills anyway, so this was how they cooked each and every day.
We knew that today might be a tough one, but when we turned the corner into the living room, it got a million times tougher. The youngest children ran straight for us desperate for some attention. The older children understandably were more standoffish. They had clearly been trained to come and say hello and shake our hands but they seemed to have that “million mile stare” that you hear about with war veterans. They’d seen too much, seen too many people stood exactly where we were, saying the same things as we were saying. People would always come and go and their lives never changed too much. If I were in their position I’d probably be the same, but despite having an active imagination I simply can’t get my head around being there in their place, stood their bare footed, wearing 3rd hand clothes and never knowing what love felt like.
Many of the children had no shoes, all wore dirty clothes that must have been donated from someone, at sometime in the distant past. The furniture they sat on was all donated and aside from already being ready for the tip, all seemed to have an unhealthy number of flies overing around them. Their library was an unruly pile of donated books in a corner, their only other entertainment was an old 14″ tv playing the only channel they had. A filthy rug in the middle of the room acted as further seating for when all the other chairs were taken.
Whilst talking to their main benefactor, and the only reason these children are not dead or at best living on the streets, one of the smallest children, Ngonidzashe, handed me a single wooden “car” that he wanted me to play with him. A curious 4 year old, he must have thought I was the most interesting thing to happen to him that week, but the look in his face as he smiled at me and offered me his favourite toy broke my heart.
We looked around the rooms and found that although there were 3 bedrooms, there was only 1 actual bed. The “house mother” slept there with the youngest babies (9months, 1 & 2), the other 13 children shared the remaining 6 blankets on the floor. Mattresses are too often soiled and don’t last longer than a few months. Many children suffer from nightmares in the night and soil themselves, others have never properly learned how to control their bladders in the first place, the rest are just babies who should still be living in nappies but have none.
The rest of the tour of the house brought us to the bathroom and toilet facilities and we discovered that although they had a toilet, they couldn’t use it as the septic tank hadn’t been emptied by the council and was weeks overdue, and now they simply had to use the garden bushes for 1’s and 2’s. Despite all my travels, all my expeditions, all my dehli-belly from eating spicy food and all the times I’ve almost been caught short, I’ve always made it to a toilet. I’ve never had to shit in a bush and I’d hope to think that not many of you have either. To think that its a way of life though, that was horrible.
We are going to do all that we can to help make their lives a little brighter, a little better. They survive entirely on donations and this is exactly the kind of thing that we came to try and help with. If you want to help us to help them, you can donate here.
I’d also like to plea to anyone who knows anything about international adoption agencies to get in touch as I’d love to see if we could help some of these children even if Zimbabwean’s cannot. I have no idea about anything of this nature but figure that there might be someone out there reading this that help with a bit of advice at least.
Nicole also had a life changing experience with one of the little boys today:
“As soon as we pulled up to the orphanage my heart sank. As soon as we entered the living room this little boy by the name of Macdaniel, barely one year old, came running over to me with arms wide open with a big smile on his face to say hello. So, I picked him up and instantly he wrapped his legs around me and cuddled me. I was so overcome with emotion that I wanted to cry. To think that this little boy that had been abandoned by his mother still had so much love to give, broke my heart. He almost fell asleep on me so I was about to put him down and look at the rest of house, but he gripped me even harder. In the end we sat and held each other a little longer. He was so content and so calm.
It was heart breaking to look around at the other older children and you could see in there eyes that they are so used to people coming and going so they just said hello and continued to sit and interact with each other. I must of sat and held Macdaneil for at least an hour and he didn’t seem to want to move.
I went over with Macdaniel to where the other younger kids were playing with some torn up books. They were licking the pictures of all the exotic food in the books that they had in front of them that they had seen, but never tasted. Their daily meals were rice, porridge and ground up maize. We sat and started looking at the books together and I asked them what the picture was (it was a frog) and they seemed a little unsure, so I made the sound of a frog and they laughed. I then began tickling and playing chase with them and any interaction with them seemed to light them up as they must have so little love and attention in their lives. Macdaneil then wanted another hug and as we did I found it so hard to imagine giving birth and leaving your child at the side of the road to be found. As our visit came to an end we said thank you to all the children and Macdaneil came outside with us. He had no shoes on and his little face was so sad at the thought that we were leaving. Nathan went to shake his little hand to say goodbye and he put his other hand in his as if to hold hands to walk out of gate and to a new life. With that we were almost in tears.
It was the hardest thing to have to leave this child behind and we can’t wait to go back and see them again.”
As Macdaniel put his hand in mine I must admit I started to fill up. I had received handshakes from everyone of the children on the way in, so assumed that it would only be polite to shake his hand again. I didn’t expect for a moment that he’d think to put his hand in mine thinking that he was leaving with us. I didn’t expect that he’d affect me so much. Just like Zimbabwe as a whole, Macdaniel and the feelings he gave me were surprising and saddening in equal measure. We’ll be returning to Tariro Orphanage sometime next week and starting to help out wherever we can and it’ll feature on another blog then too. Until then, I do hope that you made it through to the end of this blog and I am sorry that its been a long one, but I couldn’t begin to describe today in fewer words than I have. Please share if you feel this story has touched you as it touched us.