Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Back to Zambia!

Again! After 3.5 months at the Hands at Work Hub in South Africa, we return to the place where a huge part of our journey began in Africa – the magical land of Zambia. We arrived with mixed feelings. On the one hand, we were dreading having to pack our lives up … yet again. It feels like, lately, we’ve constantly been on the move, making it difficult for us to feel settled in one place. We also aren’t looking forward to Zambian living – the many inconveniences and inefficiencies and the slow pace of what seems like all aspects of life here, not to mention the constant heat! There’s also much less of a community feel here. While Hands is focused on building up its presence in Zambia, there are still far fewer people here than there are at the Hub in South Africa. At times, it’s easy to get a little stir crazy because there’s really not a whole lot to do. We live rurally, on a farm, with a handful of Hands volunteers. The farm is about 12 kms away from Luanshya, the nearest town, and about 45 kms away from Kitwe, where we lived the first time we were sent to Zambia. But, as we’ve learnt in the past, it’s good to be uncomfortable. After all, we certainly didn’t come to Africa to be comfortable!

On the other hand, we are really looking forward to connecting with everyone back in Zambia, particularly the Kitwe Service Centre team – Blessings, Towela and Clement – that quickly became like family to us, and the international volunteers here that we became good friends with. We are also really excited about what we will be doing from a work perspective. When we first arrived in Zambia in mid-October of last year, we were mere rookies, fresh out of orientation. We didn’t know anything about Zambia, nor did we understand much about who Hands was or what we were going to be doing. Fast-forward 10 months and the difference is like night and day. We’re not saying that being in Africa a year has made us experts, by any means, but we now have a far greater understanding of our roles and of the big picture. We feel we have finally reached a point where we are contributing into Hands and really building into the work that’s going on here. In fact, it’s a big part of why we’ve been sent back to Zambia!

This time we’ll only be in Zambia for 6.5 weeks, as opposed to the 6.5 months we spent here the first go-around. It’s shaping up to be a very busy 6.5 weeks for both of us, though! Diane’s main responsibilities include training and working together with a new accountant that Hands recently hired to fill a huge role with our Zambia finances. She’ll also be helping out the Kitwe and Luanshya Service Centres with their bookkeeping functions, an area of constant need. As for me, I’ll be spending the majority of my time working with our Regional Support Team and our Service Centres in Kitwe and Luanshya to ensure that certain projects are completed by the end of the year. I will also be facilitating the planning and budgeting for essential projects and workshops in 2014, as well as providing general support wherever I can.

When we shifted into our long-term roles a few months ago, I wondered if I would struggle with not being out in our African communities, interacting with our Care Workers and seeing the children we serve on a regular basis. It was very much a regular part of our day when we walked with the Kitwe Service Centre for those 6.5 months and I absolutely loved it. I mean, who wouldn’t love this ...

Me and Philip, a little boy from a community called Mulenga (and yes ... that is me wearing a headband ...)
But now that we’re back in completely different roles, we are both very excited about how everything has taken shape. As much as we loved being in the community, we know and now completely understand that, as foreigners, that could never be part of our long-term role. Never mind the fact that we could never fill the shoes of our local community leaders, it’s just not sustainable, nor does it build into one of our core values of local community ownership. A part of us will always want to be on the ground and in the community with our kids (they’re pretty damn cute). But we know that we add much more value and build into something much bigger when we serve as the behind-the-scenes support. While we haven’t been able to settle down in a home as of yet, it’s been really, really good for us to feel like we’ve settled into our roles with Hands. We love that we’ve been entrusted with more responsibility and are being given opportunities to build into what we’re doing here.

With the rollercoaster 6.5 months we had here, it definitely became a love-hate kind of thing in our relationship with Zambia. But since we’ve been gone, we think fondly of our experience and are now able to laugh about the tough times we faced. We look forward to what God has in store for us this time around. It’s good to be back!

Enjoy some photos from our first few days back.

- Byron

Playing with 5 week old puppies at the farm
Relaxing, roast pig style
All 6 puppies napping
Jessie, the puppies' mom
Community church in Mulenga
Visiting a Care Worker's home after church
Diane with Johnny, Philip's older brother
Sylvia and Denise, one of our Care Worker's wife and daughter in Mulenga. She was NOT happy to see white people.
Shekinah, Blessings' new baby boy
Our room for the next 6 weeks inside the main house at the farm. Separate beds make for romantic times.
View of the farm
The office at the farm ... where all the magic happens
The volunteer kitchen
Got milk?
Former chicken coops being constructed into new accommodation for volunteers
Guest "chalets", also converted from former chicken coops
The back of the main house with our ghetto, non-functioning swimming pool
Reunited with our favourite little sweetheart at the farm, Towanga

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Ce-le-brate Good Times, Come On!

Lately we've been noticing how quickly time is passing by. We have been back at the Hub in South Africa for over 3 months now, settled into our roles (Diane on the Finance / Project Support team for our Zambia operations and Byron on the Legal / Operations / Clau Clau Service Centre Project Support / Kitwe Service Centre Project Support side of things). Between the move back to South Africa, visits from our family, taking on more responsibility with our new roles, and life in general, it feels like we haven't had much time to spare. But no matter how quickly time has escaped us, it's never too late to reflect on the good times and to share these memories with friends and family back home.

In April every year, Care Workers and Service Centre staff from across the 8 countries that Hands at Work operates in, together with international volunteers, advocates and friends of Hands at Work, and local church leaders converge at Kachele Farm, our 'Hub' in Zambia, to "ce-le-brate good times, come on!" This annual conference, called 'Celebrations', is a time for our Care Workers and Service Centre staff - the men and women whose very heart and passion our organization is built on - to meet up, share stories, re-connect and be challenged and encouraged by the work we're doing and the testimonies and stories coming out of our communities. Most importantly, it's an opportunity to gather the entire Hands Family together in one place.

Whether we traveled to Zambia by bus, by car or by plane, whether we came from the next town over (like us) or all the way from Nigeria, the UK or the US, there was an undeniable sense of family and community among us. Many of our Care Workers (1-4 from each Community Based Organization (CBO) together with the CBO Coordinator) braved long (like, really long!) bus journeys and multiple border crossings (which are always gong shows in Africa) just to be part of Celebrations. For many of our Care Workers, this is the only time of year they get to travel outside of their community. For some, it was their first time ever!

As much as Celebrations is a time of fun and re-connecting, it's also a time to introduce and roll out the key themes that Hands is focusing on in the upcoming year. It's a wonderful opportunity to assess how we're doing as an organization and what we can be doing better to more effectively reach and care for our children. Two of the themes that dominated the discussion during this year were: 'Holy Home Visits' and 'The Jesus We Know'.

We've said it here before but, if there's one activity we do that defines who we are as an organization, it is home visits. We visit others because Jesus first visited us. Home visits are what enable us to properly assess and understand our children. It is what allows us to engage in deep relationships with a child and is what separates us from being a mere service provider. In short, it shows the child that we care, that he/she is valued, and that he/she is known by name. It must be so much more than just a brief check-in or an obligatory visit to be crossed off a to-do list. One of the main points emphasized is that, for our home visits to be effective and transformational, each visit must be approached with the same preparation, attitude and anticipation as one would have if they were to be meeting with God himself. Would we go into such a meeting with an agenda or a time limit? Would we go with impatient attitudes or a narrow-mindedness that limits our expectations of what God can do in our lives? Of course not! Rather, we go for no other reason than to love and serve. If we adopt the right spirit in our home visits, we trust that God will show up. Only then will we truly see the transformational nature of "holy" home visits.

Another theme that we talked about is something we termed, ‘The Jesus We Know’. Many of our Care Workers have been raised their whole life with an understanding of God, of Christianity, that misconstrues or altogether misses the true message of the gospel. Instead, the prosperity gospel - the theology that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians, and that faith, positive speech, and donations to Christian ministries will always increase one's material wealth (according to Wikipedia) - reaches throughout vast parts of Africa. Many are also exposed to a very legalistic view of what it means to be a Christian - that we must obey the Biblical commandments to earn favour with God and to, ultimately, earn our way into heaven. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the life Jesus lived and the good news He came to bring during His time on Earth. The 'Jesus We Know' is the Jesus who is the blameless Son of God but, yet, was mocked and persecuted and ultimately died for our sins. The 'Jesus We Know' is the Jesus who spent His life dwelling amongst the sinners, condemning the religious and the righteous. The 'Jesus We Know' is the King who came to be a humble servant and wash the feet of his disciples. During Celebrations, we were all deeply challenged with whether we know the true Jesus of the gospel, who loves and cares for widows and orphans, and who teaches us that it is the poor, the weak and the meek who will inherit the kingdom of heaven. As Christians, and as those who have made it our mission to care for such people, we need to be looking to the example that Christ set during His time on Earth and living our lives in a way that strives to be more like Him.

All-in-all, it was a joyous 3 days, full of fellowship, learning and just pure celebration of what God is doing in the lives of the children we serve. It was truly amazing! Our hearts were touched as we saw Service Centre Coordinators from different countries reunited after years, teasing each other and telling each other stories, despite their sometimes very broken English. The laughter, the dancing, the moments where a group of Care Workers would just break out in song ... these are memories we will hold dear to our hearts forever. Here are some pictures and hightlights from our time together.

-Diane & Byron

"The Wall" of protection that we build around the child 
Byron with baby Mischek, Clement's tank of a son 
A packed house on the first day of Celebrations with representatives from CBO's from all 8 of our countries! 
An impromptu song and dance before the start of day 2 ... so very African of us!
The little ones are always the belles of the ball. This little guy, Farai Jr., is the son of our Zimbabwe Service Centre Coordinator 
More singing and dancing
Amazing praise and worship

Prayer for those in need
Hadasah, the cutest little Congolese baby we have EVER met!!
Song and dance performances by each of the 8 countries Hands operates in

Nigerians (with honourary Nigerians) rocking the house (we just wanted to post this picture to show Lynn dancing)
The largest contingent at Celebrations, Zambia, after our song and dance number! 
Say "Mwentula!", which means "Smile!" in Bemba 
A precious group picture of the Kitwe Service Centre together with Care Workers from each of the CBOs that the Kitwe Service Centre supports
Our 2 favourite Zambian ladies: Elizabeth (R), the Coordinator of the Luanshya Service Centre together with Towela (L), our mom and the Coordinator of the Kitwe Service Centre
The dishes that fed over 225 people!
Is that ... Cleveland?! From The Family Guy?

Tuesday, 6 August 2013


I was informed of the situation the night before. Earlier in the day, 3 little girls – ages 9, 7 and 2 – were taken from their home by members of Hands at Work. The girls would spend the night at one of our long-term volunteer couple’s home and, in the morning, I was to take them to social services.

A week or so earlier, one of our visiting teams spent time with a Community Based Organization (CBO) that Hands at Work partners with to care for orphaned and vulnerable children. While playing with the children at the Care Point, a few volunteers from the team noticed one girl that was particularly withdrawn. It went beyond the mere shyness of a young girl; there was something about her behaviour that seemed off. 

Members of the team brought their concerns to Hands at Work personnel who were accompanying the team on that day. They, in turn, addressed the issue with the Care Workers of the CBO. The resulting conversation, and what was revealed through it, was bigger than anyone could have anticipated.

The girl’s name is Annette (her name has been changed for the purposes of this blog post), the 9-year old mentioned at the beginning of this post. 7 years ago, she was raped by her father … the same father she continued to live with until that day. It doesn’t take long to do the math – she was 2 years old at the time. Annette and her 2 sisters are a part of the CBO’s 3 Essential Services program meaning that, among other things, they are visited in their home by the CBO Care Workers on a regular basis. On one of these home visits, Annette’s mother disclosed to one of the Care Workers what had happened. The mother, gripped by fear of the potential consequences of such news leaking out into the wider community, made the Care Worker swear to secrecy. The father’s brother, a known sangoma (witch doctor) within the community, threatened death to anyone who interfered with their family affairs.

In an ideal world, our Care Workers, standing firm on the foundation of Christ, would not be threatened by a sangoma and would understand that sangomas have no power over them. However, the reality is that, in a culture still so gripped by traditional beliefs, fear of the dark powers of sangomas is still very much alive. Unfortunately, the effects of this type of fear and its impact reach down to our children and threaten their safety and wellbeing.

Annette is a glaring example. Her story, wrapped up in secrecy and tossed aside for 7 years, is now only being discovered. 7 years of living in fear, of having to endure the feelings of shame and worthlessness and embarrassment, and having that compounded with the confusion that the ones entrusted to her care were unwilling to step up and do anything about it. In an ideal world, members of Hands at Work should not have been the ones to intervene.

I prepared for the day like any other but knew that my heart would likely be broken many times throughout the day. I approached the car where the 3 little ones were already seated in the backseat. Their faces were aglow with excitement and their laughter full of giddiness. I struggled to make sense of the picture. Were they not scared to have been taken away from their home and community? Were they not fearful of these strange foreigners were around them? Were they not confused by where they were and what was going on? I smiled at them and greeted them in Siswati and watched as their eyes lit up and their laughter continued. It warmed my heart to see the 3 of them together, bringing me a sense of peace in knowing that, at the very least, they had each other.

My objective was clear. I was useful, partly because I have familiarity and trust with our Clau Clau Service Centre team (who were the ones tasked with advocating with social services for Annette and her sisters), but mainly because I could drive. And I was fine with that. More than fine. As much my heart broke for them and cried out for justice, and as much as I wanted to play the role of hero in these girls’ lives, I understood that I was to remain in the background as much as possible and allow our local team to handle the matter.

We drove to the social service office where we sat for 1.5 hours. As it is with pretty much everything else in Africa, the process seemed quite informal and lacked much structure. As Fortunate, our Clau Clau Service Centre Coordinator, explained Annette’s situation to the social workers in Siswati, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of what she was saying was understood by Annette. The last thing I wanted to happen was for Annette to have to re-live the experience again. Luckily, it seemed that the girls were more than happy to entertain themselves.

After speaking with two different ladies in the office, the head of the social work department sat down with us. Upon hearing Annette’s story, he felt it appropriate to act immediately and followed us to the girls’ house to speak with their mother. As we were leaving the social work office, Fortunate thanked me for being there and explained that, if I (or, more specifically, my skin colour) had not been present, it’s likely we would have received a much different response from the social workers. I found it odd, given that each of the social workers we spoke to were black Africans, that I would receive preferential treatment over a local. At the same time, I shouldn’t really have been all that surprised. This is Africa, after all, where the colour of your skin automatically groups you into a certain social class.

We arrived at the girls’ house with the head of the department and one other social worker. With all the conversation happening in Siswati, I didn’t know what was being said or, just as importantly, what wasn’t being said. From what I gathered, the mother wasn’t exactly forthcoming in her responses to the social workers’ questions. This prompted Fortunate to pull her aside and speak to her one on one, imploring the mother to disclose the complete truth. She then admitted to the incident that happened 7 years ago.
The rest of the conversation was scattered. At times, we were told that there have been no further incidents of abuse. At others, we were told that the father continues to be abusive – that he often comes home drunk, beats the mother and chases the mother and the girls out of the house.

In a surprising turn of events, the father later showed up at the house. This was especially surprising considering that, when members of Hands at Work came to take the girls away a day earlier, the father never came to the house, even though he was nearby and could see everything that was happening. The fact that he would look on as a bystander and do absolutely nothing as complete strangers took his 3 daughters away spoke volumes about the type of father he is.

As the father answered questions from the social workers, I struggled to control the resentment I felt for this man. I could not bring myself to greet him, something which is an essential part of African etiquette. Every time I looked at him, I felt as though I could burn a hole through his head with my gaze. It couldn’t escape my mind that I was face to face with not only a rapist, but a rapist of his own 2-year old daughter. At times, I sensed a calling for grace and forgiveness but ultimately chose to ignore them. I knew it was wrong but lacked the fortitude to do otherwise.

The father was prodded and questioned by the social worker about the girls, their mother and their general wellbeing. The social worker could not come straight out and accuse him of what happened 7 years ago but instead tried to ask a bunch of indirect questions that would hopefully lead to an admission of sorts. None came. When asked why Annette appears withdrawn, he answered that it is because he does not have a job and cannot afford to buy his family food or other things. When pressed further about signs of abuse, he claimed that, when she was young, she slept at a neighbour’s place and, upon returning from that neighbour’s place, she started to develop strange behaviors. He also claimed not to know the reason for this.

The most disturbing response from the father came when he was asked why Annette had made claims that her mother was being abused. His response: when he is having sex with his wife, Annette attributes the sounds coming from her mother as abuse, and such impressions are probably exacerbated by the impacts of the abuse she suffered at her neighbour’s place. There were so many things wrong with this response on so many levels that I don’t even know where to begin. Unsurprisingly, the father revealed and admitted to nothing.

Nevertheless, the social workers explained that they still needed to take Annette and her sisters away to assess their health and wellbeing and so that further investigations could be done. When the girls were told they would have to leave with the social workers, it was a difficult scene to witness. As the girls were packing their stuff, the middle sister started crying. I assumed that she was upset at having to leave home. I was told later that the reason she was crying was not because she was leaving home but because she didn’t want to go with the social workers. What she really wanted was to go back with us to the Hands Village. I wanted nothing more than to take them back with us but I knew this was not the solution. Annette, on the other hand, looked quite pleased. She walked towards the car, bag in hand, with a big smile on her face and without so much as even looking back at what she was leaving behind.

The girls have now been placed in a “place of safety” (which is the local term for a social services safehouse). While the accommodation is not great, it was imperative that the girls were removed from their home and remain separated from their father. The girls will later be taken to the clinic to be assessed and the local child welfare department, in connection with the police, will open up an investigation into this matter. Fortunately, the place of safety is very close by the Hands Village so the members of Hands at Work that have been involved in this process, including myself, can visit the girls with relative ease.

The reason I share this story is because, in a way, it represents so much of the reason why I am here. It encapsulates so much of who Hands at Work is as an organization. In this situation, all I did was serve as a driver. I did nothing heroic, nothing brilliant to coax social services into responding, nothing to fix the greater issue at hand. But, as I continue to learn and accept more and more every day, it’s not about me. And it never should or will be. It’s not about what I can bring to the table, nor is it about how many children I can save while I am here in Africa. While there are times and situations where my education and skills will prove to be useful, this was not one of them. Had I not been here, there undoubtedly would have been someone else driving the girls in my place. I’m not irreplaceable, nor will I ever be. But I am a part of something that I could never achieve on my own, something much greater than myself. I’m participating in life with a group of people who refuse to sit idly by while children like Annette live in constant fear and brokenness and helplessness,people who recognize and respond to the immeasurable value God places on each life.

In that one day I spent with those 3 little girls, my heart broke at a level that I can’t explain. But through it all, I experienced some of the core, defining values that I desire and choose to live my life by.

- Byron