We had a chance to see the “real” Africa this past weekend. Not that SA isn’t the real Africa, it’s just as real as the rest of Africa, but it’s a very westernized culture that is quite different than the Africa you think of from the news or movies. This weekend we went with a group from the Joburg area to deliver food parcels and build relationships with the people of a village in Zimbabwe. If you haven’t watched the news in the past couple of years (make it like 20 years) there has been a continual decline in the overall situation in Zimbabwe. War, corrupt political powers, and drought have all played a part. In it’s prime Zimbabwe was considered the “bread basket of Africa” and could have produced enough food to feed the entire African continent. These days farms are in the hands of individuals who aren’t farmers, schools have been closed for a couple of years (they just opened again last week), and their currency is so inflated people use it as wallpaper (recently the currency was done away with and the US dollar and South African rand is the operational currency). Many of the men of this country have left to find work or are staying and struggling to feed themselves and their families. The absence of men was very apparent in the village we visited as there were almost no males between the ages of 20 and 40 around. Somehow the country has yet to be considered in a state of emergency and those fleeing are not considered refugees. This, in turn, means that NGOs are not allowed in and aid is denied. But the people are suffering and this has caught the attention of bordering countries.The group we traveled with makes a monthly trip to Zimbabwe to drop food in various villages. The food parcels contain flour, peanut butter, sugar, cooking oil, seasonings, soap, corn meal, sugar beans, and other items that can supplement the food supply of a family of up to 10 people for one month. We were excited for the opportunity to be involved in not only seeing the situation first hand, but also being part of the relief effort. This trip did have an added element too, as the group leaders were looking to see if this community was one they could partner with over a longer period of time and bring sustainable farming practices which would allow the village to feed themselves year after year. We were glad to see the long term vision and desire to not just put a band-aid on the problem, but truly bring vision and a long term solution.We left our place at 3am Friday morning and arrived at the border around 11:30am. The border crossing is a humbling process to go through because you are at the mercy of the customs/immigration officers who, at any point, could deny your entrance. We made it through the SA side with relative ease, but as we got to the Zim side, things were very different. Drivers and passengers complete different paperwork. Those of us who were passengers had little trouble getting our Zim visas, but John and Marc, who were doing the driving, had a few more road blocks. Although asking for and giving bribes is illegal, it can be part of the process and we were adamant that we would not pay any bribes on this crossing. They were discreetly asked for several times, but both Marc and John stuck to their guns. Here’s one story that describes part of this experience: After 20 minutes of pleading our case with the official, he finally told us that we needed to go get this particular stamp or else he would not be able to help us. When we turned around there were several people saying they could help us with this problem. These aren’t customer service reps, these are just regular guys who hang around and take your money and eventually get you through, but they give a cut to the officials. Marc realized the partnership that existed and decided if these guys could get us through, we should be able to get through on our own. We had absolutely everything they needed, they were telling us to do something we didn’t need to do as a way to get money from us. As we came up to the window for the second time and Marc begged once again, the official realized we were not going away and we were not paying a bribe and eventually signed off on our papers. Another incident came as we were stopped for a vehicle check. John was told he needed to declare the goods and needed to have a certain piece of paper (which we did not need). The official checking us through gave us the paper and said, “I just need a favor for favor.” John did a great job of playing ignorant and acting like he had no idea what the guy was talking about (that American accent can really help sometimes). John kept saying, “So, it’s okay if we just go?” and “We’re good, right, we can just go now?” and after not too long the guy realized we weren’t catching on and waved us through. These were only two of many more checks that we had to go through. We gave all credit to God when we got to the other side safely, with all of the people and goods with which we left!
Seventeen hours after leaving Joburg, our group of 10 adults and three children arrived at a small village where we were joyfully greeted with hugs and handshakes under a blanket of breathtaking stars. We were ushered into the church (which was actually a school) for a service. Although exhausted, the incredible harmonies and rhythmic movements of the women who welcomed us gave us energy and we thoroughly enjoyed worshipping with them. We had two more church services with them over the weekend and each time enjoyed the beautiful voices that filled the room and the stories of faith that were shared. Other thing we really liked about their worship services were the greeting times in which they would sing and walk around shaking hands and hugging almost every person in the church; as people made a decision to follow Christ everyone would get up and start singing, dancing, rejoicing, and hugging the new Christians; also, the after church processional in which as you walked out you would line up and shake hands with everyone as they passed by while singing. Basically they love to sing and hug, if you hadn’t caught on yet.
We filled the rest of the weekend just hanging out with the people of the village. Making new friends, playing games with the kids, distributing the food parcels, eating sugar cane, and visiting the pastor’s house. We both met some incredible people. One of Erin’s favorite women was Sifundisewe (see-fun-di-see-way), whose name it took the whole weekend to get right. This woman is in her mid 20s, has two children of her own, and is taking care of her six younger brothers and sisters as her parents are dead. Her husband is not around much because he is selling produce in town about 80 km away. She had a beautiful spirit about her and a beautiful smile. Erin really enjoyed talking to her and watching her go about her work with such a sincere and joyful heart. John spent much of his time playing with the kids but did connect with one of the interpreters named Metric. He came from another town to work with us. He would call John “John the Baptist” and liked John’s beard quite a bit. He was a very good interpreter and really helped us be able to connect with the local community. Most everyone spoke English, but their English wasn’t as good as the local language so an interpreter was necessary for the church services in particular. We met many more people than we can speak specifically about right now and they seemed sincerely glad that we were there. We loved that they were welcoming and giving even though they had no idea we were going to give them food, that came much later.
The leaders of the group we went with seemed very positive about the future relationship between them and the village and also very positive about the future of Zimbabwe. There seems to be a real undercurrent of change taking place. Zimbabweans are standing up and not only calling for change but are ready to be involved and catalysts for a new direction. We were so blessed to be part of this trip and we received just as much or more from these people than we gave. Our trip home was much less eventful and we crossed back into SA quite easily and quickly. God’s provision and grace were so evident over our three day journey. We are so thankful for the team that went and the opportunity we were given to be part of the work God is doing through these people. We look forward to hearing future reports about this community, how this newly forged relationship moves ahead, and how Zimbabwe, as a nation, is rebuilt. Who knows, maybe some day we will be able to visit again and see for ourselves.