Surviving in Zimbabwe


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As a British colony, Zimbabwe was part of what used to be called Rhodesia. President Robert Mugabe won the first general election of independent Zimbabwe in 1980, promising good things for the country’s future. At that time Zimbabwe, with its well-tended farms and orchards, was considered to be the bread basket of Africa. But in 2000 President Mugabe began seizing farms from white land owners and redistributing them mostly to black government officials who did not cultivate the land. As a result, food production in the country has almost entirely stopped, and the people of Zimbabwe are starving. Just outside of Mutare, Paula Leen, an Oregon native, serves hundreds of destitute people through her orphanage, ambulance, and feeding programs. While on a two week trip home to the States, Spectrum asked Paula how Zimbabwe’s people are coping with the current crisis, and how her work is making a difference in their lives.

Question: How long have you been in Zimbabwe and why did you originally make the trip?

Answer: I first arrived in Zimbabwe on October 9, 1981. It is interesting how it happened. I was living in Pasco, Washington at the time when my niece and her fiancé, Carl Wilkens, came over for a visit. They were making a voice letter to his parents in Harare and explained that they were graduating, getting married, and going to Africa soon. “That’s wonderful,” I said. “I would love to do something like that.” When Carl’s father got the tape, he said, “Get her name and address.” Shortly after that I got a call from the General Conference asking me if I was serious and if I would like to go to Zimbabwe. Two months later I was there!

The Lord has plans you don’t anticipate. When I was a little girl going to camp meeting I’d go and hear the mission stories and I would think, “Wow, I’d like to be a missionary. I’d love to run an orphanage.” It came many years later, but it worked out.

Question: You now run the Murwira Orphanage outside of Mutare. Did you start it yourself?

Answer: Yeah. A couple weeks after I got to Zimbabwe, some administrators at the division took me with him to visit a rural church. I saw the need and developed a real urge to see what I could do to help. Then as I became acquainted with the various ADRA people, they sent containers of clothes to me. Each evening I would be sort and label the clothes by type and such, so that I was pretty active even in my free time. Then on weekends I would go all over the countryside where the most needs were and give clothes to families. Things just sort of developed from there.

Question: How do children come to live at Muwira?

Answer: Well, the laws of the country don’t allow us just to go pick up any orphan child we see. I do pay village health workers to go into the surrounding villages to observe the needs in every home so that we can know where assistance is needed. With the help of these people we recently counted 449 orphaned children just in our area. Of course, that number accelerates everyday. They’re all around us, but we’re not allowed to just take them because they are orphans. The government has regulations and they tell us which ones we are allowed to take. Right now we have 37.

Of course, on our trips we’ve seen so many needs that we’ve had to do much more than just run an orphanage. We distribute food to people in the community and we also act as an ambulance. When we know that someone will die if we don’t take them to the hospital, we have no choice but to do it. Unfortunately it’s 80 kilometers each way, and since fuel is now so expensive in Zimbabwe, it’s costing us $4,000-$5,000 per month to be a 24 hour ambulance. Some weeks we only have to go three or four times, but sometimes it’s twice a day. You just never know when there’s going to be an emergency.

Question: What kinds of sickness do you encounter on a day to day basis and how hard is it to connect people with the medical help they need?

Answer: Cerebral malaria is a big problem, being the most serious strain of the disease. The other thing is, with such high rates of AIDS and malnutrition, there are often complications during pregnancies. Never a week goes by when we don’t bring in some lady in labor with no fetal heartbeat, or the woman is bleeding, or some other kind of complication exists. And often these problems occur several times per week.

Then, of course, there are children with hydrocephalus who have enlarged heads. Their only chance to live is to have a shunt put in to drain the fluid and relieve the pressure on the brain. These operations have been draining our financial resources. Pretty soon I’ll have no choice but to start turning my back on them, and that’s going to be very, very hard.

We also have a lot of children with AIDS. When you see a child, a little innocent child suffering severely from that, it’s pretty hard. In our orphanage we have three children that we know are HIV positive, and we have just recently been given three small babies. Some of them may have HIV, but they’re too young to check yet.

Question: News sources report that the inflation rate in Zimbabwe is so high that local currency isn’t even being accepted any more. How are people getting by? How does this affect your work?

Answer: It’s been a real challenge. Recently we’ve been able to use U.S., South African, or British currency, but prior to that the economy was fluctuating so much and so fast that it cost us a great deal of money. I can remember one incident that happened many times over, where the exchange rate went from Z$ one trillion to one US dollar, to Z$ thirty one trillion to one US dollar in only 24 hours! So if you exchange money at 1 trillion and then the next day you want to go shopping, the price has gone way up!

This has hurt me big time because it essentially means that if you get money one day, you spend it that same hour or it’s going to be depreciated. Once I changed money on Friday, and because I didn’t want to shop on Sabbath, by Sunday I realized that a loaf of bread cost the equivalent of $41 US dollars! I’m never going to do that again. There’s just no way. So, I’m very very thankful that we now shop in hard currency.

Question: What do you find when you go into the store and look at the shelves?

Answer: A lot of stores have closed down or have empty shelves. What they do to make it not look quite so hopeless is line up a few cans of baked beans or whatever at the very front of the shelf. Then it looks like the store has some food. There are two or three stores in town that are importing a decent variety of food, but you do pay a high price for it. I mean, probably about triple what it costs here in the U.S.

Question: What humanitarian experience did you have before going to Zimbabwe?

Answer: Well, there really hadn’t been anything significant up till that time. There are a lot of poor people in the United States, but it’s nothing compared to the needs over there. Currently in Zimbabwe the desperately starving have eaten up all the wild fruit. There is nothing left of it. They’re taking leaves from trees and boiling them. They’re taking bark from trees, mixing it with dirt from the ground, and cooking it as a cereal to eat.

I read one report that asked a random sampling of people how many of them had needed to sell personal belongings to get food in order to survive. The number was 70%. Now, when you think about personal belongings in Africa, we’re not talking much. A family may live in one hut, and if they decide to move, everyone carries a bundle on their head. They don’t need a U-haul trailer for anything, so these people have little to sell. But to keep alive, they are selling the little they have.

Wow, that puts things in perspective doesn’t it?

Answer: Yeah! While sitting in the airport waiting for the next flight on my way home four days ago, I watched the news commentator on TV say that there are the worst job opportunities in America in 25 years: 8.1% unemployment. And we had just got the news in Zimbabwe that the unemployment rate there is now at 94.7%. So, 8.1% sounded pretty wonderful to me. People totally can’t visualize it unless they are there and have starving babies brought to them.

Question: Paula, I’m going to be bold and ask how old you are.

Answer: I’m 74 years young.

Question: Did you expect to be doing this kind of work at your age? What do your family members and friends think about what you’re doing?

Answer: Well, I think they’re all gung-ho, but they also realize that it’s getting harder and harder for me because I do have some health problems. I broke my back when I was driving our big truck and the doctor said, “If you don’t stay in bed three weeks you are going to have back pain the rest of your life.” I was sincerely hoping he was wrong, because I knew I could NOT stay in bed for three weeks. You can’t just let people die and everything go. But he was right. I do have back pain now, every day, among other health problems. But I ignore them as much as I can.

Question: There has been violence toward white land owners living in Zimbabwe in the past. What kind of attitudes do you encounter regarding your presence in the country? Do you ever find yourself facing physical danger?

Answer: I don’t worry very much about physical danger. Our place could be seen as a farm because we have 20 acres where we grow fruit trees and vegetables, and they do see a white person there. Currently we also have two volunteers who are white. So they might say, “This is a white woman. Take it. It’s just like taking another white-owned farm.” But we do go through a number of police road blocks on our way through town, and we have helped them at various times with car tires, pens, notebooks, carbon paper, or a little bit of food. They see us going back and forth all the time as an ambulance, so I think at least the police realize that we’re there to serve people. I don’t think they’ll trouble us unless they are told that they must. Once someone said to me, “You know, we do appreciate what you’re doing for our people. But if we get directions from higher up to chase you, to burn up your car or whatever, we’re not our own persons. We have to do what we’re told.”

Question: Surely for these reasons some have advised that you leave Zimbabwe. How do you respond to them, and what would happen to the people you serve if you left?

Answer: Well, that’s why I don’t leave, because I worry what would happen. If you concentrate on the crime and the bad things in the country, you may not even want to be there. You’ve got to concentrate on what you can do to save people. And I just pray all the time, “Lord, you tell me the way because I don’t know it. You’re the only one that knows the future.” So, I don’t worry too much about safety, even though I realize that at any given time I could be in serious danger. I just truly rely on the Lord to take care of it.

Question: What are your greatest needs right now, Paula, and how can Spectrum web readers help your cause?

Answer: We need clothes and food, of course. We need mature volunteers with electrical, mechanical, or construction skills. We could also use someone who has been a teacher. I mean, take your pick. We have so many needs.

Question: Do you see a light at the end of the tunnel for the country of Zimbabwe? Answer: As it looks now, things are extremely discouraging. But you know what? We serve the creator of the universe who can do anything, and I keep praying that he will relieve some of the suffering and death. It’s extremely hard for me to turn my back on someone who will die if I don’t help them. And yet some of my friends in America say, “Well, you can’t help everybody. You’ve just got to let them die.” But that’s like someone telling you about your next door neighbor with whom you are good friends, “Well, just let them die.” I can’t do that.

Paula Leen is a retired church secretary from Portland, Oregon, and 2006 Adventist Woman of the Year award recipient. Those wishing to donate to the Murwira Orphanage may do so at http://amistadinternational.org/pages/donations.html


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/1501