I’ve traveled in many countries, but rarely have I learned as much about a nation and its people as in these short weeks in Zimbabwe. I’m grateful that we visited Victoria Falls and Hwange game preserve to experience the land’s natural beauty, and the Great Zimbabwe National Park to learn of the long history of community life in the region. But ZimJourney 2013’s greatest impact on me was learning of the different ways people tackle our shared social needs, such as education, health care, government and religious faith.

While it seemed such a shame that so many children have to walk miles to and from their schools, it was my first indicator of the high priority Zimbabweans place on education. The care taken with uniforms; the difficulties in raising tuition fees; soccer played on a dusty, rutted, field; net-ball with no nets; and the concentration required for learning in large classrooms – or no classroom – with no electricity and but a single teacher, all made a great impression on me. While I would prefer that the schools had computers, buses and teacher’s aides, like most American schools, it was a great illustration of how much can be done with limited material resources. Also, it was great fun to invite the children to pile into the van for a ride to school; 42 people and two live chickens was the record, I think!

My heart broke to see the bare-bones medical facilities. And I could understand the prevailing belief that a hospital is where you go to die. But again, the energy level of the staff, the priority for preventive health education, and the efforts at better staff training told me that these rural facilities need only more funding and a reliable source of supplies to be centers of healing for more Zimbabweans.

It’s hard to say much positive about the Zimbabwean government; but the people have a concept of how it should function, and are just waiting for the day when the current regime is gone. It was disheartening to watch the shakedown of drivers at police stops and see the dreary conditions of the state-run children’s home in Gweru in stark contrast to the faith-based Kutenda Home. But the interest in the coming elections – and the commitment to peaceful polling – was a hopeful sign. Our brush with the government spies in Mosembura did show me that even they are people, too. They joined in our prayer circle in the orphanage church and one told us that his side-business could have done a better paint job on the dormitory!

It was in our religious experiences that I felt the most warmth of engagement. Nightly devotionals with the Lutherans in Burure, the daily chapel service at Sanyati Baptist Hospital, and the Sunday worship services were shared spiritual experiences and a sign of the strength of religion in daily life for many Zimbabweans. The lively dancing in worship was new to me, but showed how traditional rituals could be retained in the conversion to Christian faith. The curling paper-back hymnals evidenced how enthusiastically they’d been used. The warmth of the greetings and hospitality offered us visitors was a great connection.

While our group certainly stuck out as a novelty in the country, we were warmly included in all aspects of daily life. At all times, we were made welcome by Zimbabweans. I shook more hands in those three weeks in Zimbabwe than in a year at home.

 

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