Before I went, I knew from my friend “Lisa,” who oversees a ministry to orphans, several of whom are featured below, that her country’s true rate of unemployment stands at 95% even though official statistics report a lower percentage. Official counts include people as “employed” who work at self-started businesses but don’t make enough to live on. Of course, what I couldn’t visualize before I met Zimbabweans face-to-face are the lives represented by this outlandish percentage.
People like Vivian, orphaned in primary school and cared for by her aunt. With Lisa’s support, she’s completing a university degree in politics and public administration and dreams of inspiring citizen initiatives. Even as we visit her home and talk with her, she settles on her campaign slogan: “Change starts with you.” As part of her studies, she worked an unpaid internship with a city council focusing on service delivery like streetlights and water. And she will invest countless hours in her graduation project to evaluate the impact of a government policy from October 2018 on rural district offices. But when asked about her dream job, she falters. She would love to work for the government, but there are no jobs.
There are most likely two potential options for Vivian. Either the bright young woman sets aside her talents in public speaking, critical thinking, and mobilizing people to learn a trade that might lead to employment, or she looks for a job in South Africa.
Which is, in fact, the path taken by Anna, even as we are visiting Zimbabwe. Anna completed a vocational cosmetology degree in December 2019 with Lisa’s support. We planned to celebrate her graduation on the last night of our trip, but through a relative she secured a job in South Africa and left immediately.
Anna will work legally in South Africa. But many Zimbabweans, in their desperation, sneak across the border. Then, they find themselves stuck, unable to return to their home country without documentation, as well as any children born to them. “Immigration orphans” are common in Zimbabwe: children left in the care of grandparents by parents who are stuck in South Africa. Sometimes, a desperate mother will even place a child on the lap of a stranger on a bus headed to Zimbabwe. When the bus arrives in her home village, the bus driver notifies the grandparent that a “package” has arrived.
For those who have been unable to leave the country and who reach rock bottom, a last-ditch option is to move onto land owned by others, build a mud hut, and take up residence.
Sarah, an orphan supported by Lisa, lives with her grandma at V-Farm, land owned by a church for about ninety years. Widowed in 2000, Grandma lost her home and had nowhere to go, so the family moved to the open land. Michael, Sarah’s uncle, chokes on emotion as he describes his mom as his hero. She cares for her own mother as well as the children of his siblings who have passed away. As much as he longs to provide for his mother, he was unable to complete his education after his father died, and he struggles to support his wife and two children.
Sitting there under a tree, shielded from the sun beating down from high in a cerulean blue sky, with children in ragged clothing laughing nearby in the carefree way only children can, Michael says he wonders if God sees.
When Lisa’s husband, Peter, began pastoring a church in the area several years ago, he and Lisa investigated V-Farm. They discovered sixteen “squatter” households of about one hundred people. The residents’ only water source came from puddles when it rained.
Peter was once an activist, speaking out against the terrible corruption that has driven Zimbabwe, once known as the “breadbasket of Africa,” into its current state of desperation. In the mid-2000s, he took international journalists to witness human rights abuses and landed on the government hit list. He and Lisa fled with their children to the US. They could have easily stayed in the safety and comfort of life in America, but they believed God was calling them back to Zimbabwe, both to serve as pastors.
As Peter leads us on a tour of the farm, he describes a different type of protest. A far more covert plan. A strategy of raising up people from within.
Now Peter leads his denomination in developing V-Farm. Since he first visited, two boreholes have been dug and he pioneered a congregation of about fifty people. He oversaw the construction of greenhouses, now supervised by the grandma of an orphan Lydia supports. Outside the greenhouses, fields of squash grows in neatly tended rows. Nearby, Sarah’s uncle, Michael, watches over one hundred chickens.
Peter’s vision for the future includes building structures for up to 10,000 more chickens, a medical clinic, houses for workers, irrigation for outdoor crops, and a women’s training center. Starting in 2021, he will pastor and develop V-Farm full-time.
Our last stop is the home of Casey, another orphan helped by Lisa. Her single mom, Precious, never attended school because her father didn’t believe in educating girls. But as we talk, Lisa encourages her to learn to read, and she begins to dream. Precious wonders if she could find a teacher at the nearby school to tutor her. She is certain other women would come as well.
And in that moment, I find hope for Zimbabwe. There may be no jobs in Zimbabwe, and poverty may be spiraling out of control. But as long as there are people like Peter and Lisa, Jesus-followers who answer His call of downward mobility in order to empower and lift others up…like an illiterate “squatter” who wants to read and because of the encouragement of others, believes she can…there is profound hope.
It’s the hope of resurrection after the cross.