Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

My experience in Africa offers signs of hope

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In May of 2016, I travelled to Zambia. It’s a rather long story how I happened to visit a remote region of southern Africa that, prior to this trip, I knew next to nothing about, and yet discovered it to be nothing short of a “life-changing experience”.

I was newly retired. I was free to say “Yes!” when I received the invitation from a former co-worker to join in a humanitarian mission focused on Zambia’s orphaned children. Vast numbers have been left parentless due to disease, political unrest and other issues largely related to persistent poverty. The impact is so great that it actually threatens the future of entire countries as they struggle to address the most basic needs of their children.After examining the itinerary from Hands At Work, the sponsoring organization, I realized that this trip might fulfill a long-held dream of mine.

When I was twenty, a college sophomore, I enrolled in Dr. Fadiman’s “Non-Western Civ” class. He announced that he was organizing a student research team for a trip to East Africa. The cost was something like $1,800. I was working my way through school. That sum seemed so far out of my reach that I told myself to “just forget it”, a hasty decision that I would always regret. Although this trip to Zambia would also be a financial stretch, I decided to “grab the ring” knowing it might never go by again! I booked a flight out of Minneapolis - final destination, Lusaka.

After twenty-something hours of planes, layovers and bus rides, my in-country experience began with a two-day stay in Livingstone, known for its breathtaking Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Our first morning was spent hiking a mist-soaked trail below the falls and along the banks of the mighty Zambezi River. A wildlife boat tour up the river and a helicopter ride over the Falls made for a grand introduction to the magnificence that is Africa!

Next, we travelled north to Kechele Farm, the base camp for our mission stay. Here I, and my team, were housed in simple quarters to receive our orientation to Mwaiseni, a village located an hour’s drive away by van, where we would engage in “service work” beside a dozen or more care workers.

Hands At Work, is a faith-based non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to providing vital support to southern Africa’s most vulnerable children. Based in South Africa, it works with community organizations (CBOs) in seven countries. The villagers that form and run the CBOs actually take care of the children they identify who are most in need of support. Hands at Work creates partnerships between the CBOs and “donor groups” made up of volunteers in wealthier countries who provide financial assistance. I belong to a donor group called “Friends of Mwaiseni”. Our mission trip is designed to create lasting bonds between the CBO’s care workers in Africa and donors who visit from abroad.

Mwaiseni’s CBO started from the spontaneous generosity of one woman who saw the needs of orphaned children living around her. While caring for her own children, she began offering what food and guidance she could spare. Nearly eight years later, she and over twenty other women now work together to support 150 children! Many are widows themselves, raising their own children and grandchildren, and yet they find the capacity to open their arms to children who have no one else to protect them.

The CBO’s also provide basic education to enhance the children’s language and social skills. Weekly home visits are made to assess other unmet needs the children have, building a wall of protection for children who have no other support. This is the reality for many African children. For most Americans, it is difficult to imagine children raising themselves and their siblings with such meagre resources. This trip offered me the opportunity to witness this reality first-hand.

Living on the edge of extreme poverty leaves families vulnerable to unpredictable tragedy. Each family had its unique story resulting in a migration from what might have once been a functional community to a place like Mwasieni, a mecca for displaced people seeking a better life with no guarantee that they would find one. Mwaiseni is comprised of hundreds of desperate, and brave, people devastated by drought, disease, death, disabling injury of the family provider, or political conflicts which have ravaged communities. These stories, coupled with some amazingly beautiful memories, have made me a willing captive, tethered with love and gratitude to my friends in Mwaiseni!

It’s been four years since I first joined my donor group. Monthly, I make my $20 contribution, the amount needed to provide one child one meal per day for one month. If I ponder the scope of need around the world, it’s easy to question how this small amount of money could possibly make a difference? After all, does feeding one child really matter? Honestly, I don’t have a concrete answer. But I do have another story that may help.

Most of the children I met on my trip were in their first decade of life, many clearly fearful, and physically very fragile. However, also present was a small group of Mwaiseni’s youth who attended the government secondary school for half a day a few days a week. They would get back to the village in time to assist with meal serving. Healthy, handsome and bright-eyed as teens can be, they told me how they had been “adopted” by the women of the CBO when they were very small. “Without them”, they added, “we do not know where we would be.” They talked about becoming teachers and doctors. They had visions for their country. They were thinking about the future! For me though, most moving of all, was seeing these young people working beside the women who had so lovingly cared for them, helping to now feed and nurture others. They provided the answer to our question. Indeed, everything we do to make the world a better place, no matter how small it may seem, really does matter!

Kathleen McQuillan is a volunteer Advocate for the people of Mwaiseni. She is available to share more about her trip to Zambia and the opportunities to partner with Hands At Work.

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