Sunday, 8 August 2010

Letter from Zimbabwe

This is part of a recent letter from Steve Brooks (pictured above with sewing trainees), a Friend from Washington DC Meeting, who is volunteering as acting coordinator at Hlekweni until I go out to relieve him in November. It gives a flavour of some of the challenges facing the community there, and also how busy Steve has been since his arrival in June!

Dear Friends:

I've been in Zimbabwe a little over a month but so much has happened. I feel settled in my "second home". I'm now interim coordinator as the outgoing coordinator, David Jobson, departed to South Africa several weeks ago. We're in the throes of a financial crisis as the training numbers this term are not what we hoped for. We're struggling to find creative solutions to this as we've got some great potential here, it's just a challenge to find a way to make it generate an income, especially in the current environment in Zimbabwe where there is too little money chasing too many goods.

I've made several trips to Harare, the capital and largest city in Zimbabwe, one great thing is that we managed to track down a supplier for drip irrigation parts in Harare, something that we've been looking for about two years. Drip irrigation is a technique that is used in dry areas, you fill up a large trash can sized container with water and then a network of plastic tubing delivers the water right to the roots of the rows of crops, it's a very efficient way to irrigate small to medium sized plots. Hlekweni has been very successful in training rural farmers on the use of drip irrigation, often where others have failed. Drip tubing does have a 3-5 year life-span and our drip irrigation project in Gwanda is older than that. So we need to get those farmers new drip tubing as a part of wrapping up our project. After that, we'll supply farmers with replacements but we'll charge them at cost out of the profits they've made from sales of produce.

I've also visited the small meeting in Harare and stayed with a Hlekweni board member, Richard Knottenbelt, who is also caretaker for the meeting. His wife Pushpa is a wonderful cook and has given me a couple lessons on making Indian curries. I'm enjoying experimenting with that.

Aside from Hlekweni, I've been involved in a couple other projects, one of them support of a couple Primary Schools. The appeal last year for textbooks for Samathonga Primary School was quite successful and the second shipment of textbooks arrived about two months ago. Samathonga is now rated second out of 94 schools in its district, in no small part through the assistance of US Friends. In addition to the benefit of having textbooks in the classroom, it's given a big morale booster to the staff. The other school is Lochview Primary School which is on the outskirts of Bulawayo. I got connected with Lochview because one of the teachers at Samathonga quit and went to work at Lochview. I visited him there and saw that they had many needs. It turns out that Sipho, my buddy and the chair of the Hlekweni board, used to live in that neighborhood, we visited the school together on my last trip and she knew many of the people there. So we conceived the idea of helping the school. The school called a community meeting and they determined that the most urgent need was a lunch program as many of the students are receiving little food at home, many are HIV positive and are therefore especially in need of nutrition, and some are in child-headed households. So we've started a lunch program at Lochview, which has been going on for a couple weeks now. The food is being purchased and delivered with the assistance of Sipho, one of the teachers is heading up the coordination, and parents are helping out with the preparation and serving of food.

We have a deaf person on staff at Hlekweni who has never been around deaf people and is illiterate, can't talk and uses crude sign language to communicate with a few of his coworkers. He works in the garden. There's a school for the disabled called King George the 6th school in Bulawayo (you can google it, they have a nice website) and we've arranged for two deaf graduates from KG6 to come to Hlekweni for training in building. We've asked them to help us learn sign language so that we can in turn teach our deaf employee. It's also giving these young men from KG6 the opportunity to learn a trade which they passionately want to master. It's also a way of mainstreaming them as they've been among the deaf at KG6 their whole lives. The transition to the hearing world can be a daunting challenge but these guys are up to it, they're really quite something.

We've also been working on support for Innocent Muleya, a final year medical student at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Bulawayo, and his classmates. NUST has been undergoing some turmoil because the administration is trying to extract additional funds out of the students. In June, the medical students went to go take their exams and they were informed that if they didn't pay their exam fees beforehand, they couldn't sit the exams. Prior times, they could sit the exams and then when they paid, the university would release the results. People have no money and the students were so fed up with being jerked around that they all quit and arranged a last minute transfer to University of Zambia. So they were looking around for last minute financial support for this decision. There are more layers to this which are too much to go into here, but that's the thumbnail version. So my friend, Dr. Del Meriwether, of the Meriwether Foundation, agreed to pay the tuition and fees for all 10 or 11 medical students and I am assisting him to a small extent in this effort as well as helping Innocent with fees for his application for a study permit and his living expenses.

Finally, I've been liaising with the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), a human rights organization dedicated to providing a safe place for Gay Zimbabweans to socialize, get support for HIV/Aids, and advocating for equal rights for GLBT. A couple months ago, the police raided the Harare office of GALZ and arrested two people, the administrative assistant and the finance person. They are up on charges of harboring pornography and insulting the president and the trials are going on now. The charge of insulting the president is based on their having a copy of a resolution supported by Willie Brown, Mayor of San Francisco and passed by the San Francisco city council, supporting Gay rights and deploring victimization based on sexual orientation. The GALZ offices were closed for about 6 weeks and although they're reopened, people are just slowly returning. This is a case of political intimidation connected with the constitutional process. One of GALZ's problems is a slow, and often broken website that is impossible to update. With the help of the Friends Meeting of Washington's web guru, Vonn New, we're working on getting an internationally hosted website that can be updated by normal, non-techy people.

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