Journey to the heart of Africa

by Mark Lutz, Opportunity International

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However long the night, the dawn will break

—African Proverb —

Opportunity International creates opportunities for people in chronic poverty to transform their lives.

This is one of their stories.

. . . . . . . . .

In my journey through Africa, I met courageous women determined to keep their children fed and in school, determined to keep themselves alive. Many shared part of their journeys with me: their joy in their children, their pride in their work, their sorrows. A woman named Esther speaks for all her unnamed sisters and brothers in Africa struggling with poverty and AIDS.

My journey with Esther began in Zimbabwe, at a narrow stream bridged with strategically placed stepping-stones. Beside the water, she welcomed me with a gracious smile. I followed cautiously as she confidently led me across the slippery rocks. As we walked up the hill to her home, she pointed out the gravestone of her husband, who had died four years ago just months after her third child was born. She said life was difficult, not just for her, but for other mothers in her village.

Her husband had been sick for a long time. Fear kept the family from giving the symptoms a name—fear of knowing, fear of dying, fear of being stigmatized. But when Esther tested HIV-positive, she knew that the unforgiving virus infecting one out of every three adults in Zimbabwe had killed him—and would eventually kill her. She does not know how much time she has to prepare her three young children for life on their own.

African opportunityGhono Shamva, the village where Esther was born and will be buried, is nestled in picturesque hills. Homesteads dot the hillsides, fenced by brush and thorn bushes. Each compound has a round mud hut for the family home and other huts for relatives, livestock, and storage. Vast grazing fields separate each family’s land, connected by dusty footpaths. Ancestors would feel at home here. With no electricity or running water, little has changed in hundreds of years other than the calamity of AIDS.

Esther’s homestead, built of roughly felled trees with neatly thatched roofs, has some minor improvements. Though there are no windows, some walls are plastered. Some floors now are poured concrete rather than compacted cow dung. Dusty and primitive on the outside, the inside of her one-room home is lovingly furnished with handcrafted furniture covered with embroidered hearts.

Within the fenced area, about half the size of a football field, two dogs, a dozen chickens, and a gaggle of geese roam freely. Corn that Esther harvested is stored in a large bin, several feet above the ground. Below the bin are chicks she breeds. Esther’s widowed sister lives in an adjacent hut. She, too, is raising young children alone, and she, too, knows she is HIV-positive.

But the building Esther is proudest of is also the smallest. She built it from mud and thatch. Inside is a white commode, the kind you’d find at Home Depot. “I bought it in Harare,” she exclaims with pride. “And it has a septic tank.” Without running water, the sisters flush the toilet with used washing water. How she got the toilet from Harare and then up the hill to her homestead remains a mystery. Strapped on the roof of a bus with goats and crates and then strapped on her back up the long steep hill?

Esther and her sister have ample experience navigating that hill with heavy loads. At 5 a.m. they begin their daily treks down the hill to the creek. With five-gallon containers balanced on their heads, and one in each hand, they haul water to irrigate their vegetable garden. Over the next three or four hours, they each make about 25 trips to keep their garden growing. Potatoes, tomatoes, and a few other vegetables are for their table. Most of the land is used to grow covo, a leafy green vegetable, which she sells along with chickens and eggs.

Esther’s family is like an innocent water drop entering the once calm but ever accelerating Zambezi River. As the irreversible current ultimately thunders over Victoria Falls, so her children will join the 40 million African orphans predicted by the end of the decade. Esther may not know the statistics, but she lives the reality. What motivates her to press on despite her certain death from AIDS?

After her husband died, her family’s plight looked hopeless. Simple farming was all she knew, but the family garden was in shambles. She wanted to buy a calf so she could sell milk, but could never amass $30 to buy one. She considered borrowing $30, but the bank would not let her in the door, even if she could afford the 100 percent annual interest. Alternatively, the loan sharks charge 40 percent per month.

She learned of Opportunity International’s Zimbabwe program, Zambuko Trust, which means “bridge,” representing the bridge from poverty to hope. With affordable interest and no collateral, she borrowed $30 to buy her calf. In gratitude, she named it Zambuko. Each day, Zambuko produces the nutrients necessary to keep Esther, her sister, and their five children strong so they can maintain their grinding schedules.

When the loan was paid off, Esther borrowed $75 to reestablish her vegetable farm. She hired several women to till the soil and build an intricate hedge of thorn and bramble. Finally, she planted covo seeds and began fertilizing the young plants. She is teaching her two older children how to care for the garden and the cow.

Esther attends weekly Trust Bank meetings as part of her loan agreement. She and the other members guarantee each other’s loans. This gives them assurance that if one becomes ill, the other women will cover her loan and not burden her children with debt. Every four months the group has the option of receiving a larger loan to expand or diversify their businesses. With her third loan of $250, Esther expanded her garden and purchased chickens.

At the weekly meetings, the women learn how to improve their businesses. They receive guidance in pricing, marketing, inventory control, and record keeping. Esther also learns about her illness and how to care for herself. With no access to medicine, she eagerly absorbs the techniques that may extend her life. Her dream is to establish her farm, nurture her children, and maintain her strength to extend her life. In five years, her oldest child will be 13, able to carry on the business and care for the younger ones. Daily she prepares for the certain conclusion.

With health training at the weekly meetings, milk from her cow, eggs from her chickens, and vegetables from her garden, she is eating better and feeling stronger. To prolong her life, she is also instructed to conserve her energy. But how can she follow that counsel when each day begins with hours of hauling water up a rugged hill? If Esther could buy a pump, she could expand the garden and conserve her energy. The $400 loan needed for this purchase and installation could mean the difference between life and death.

After my visit with Esther, I end my journey at Victoria Falls. I watch as the river rushes ever faster toward the magnificent falls. I think of Esther who entered the torrent when it was a gentle tributary easily crossed by strategically placed stones. Streams joined, rains fell, waters rose. She passed through many rapids. Her place in the raging river is no more her choosing than is mine here on the dry bank. I stand on the precipice gently caressed by the never-ending spray. The moist tickle becomes a trickle. Soon I am soaked. We are one, sister and brother, created in the image of our loving Father. But she is being swept away by the very waters that nourish me. I cannot enter her world any more than she can know mine.

Go in peace, Esther. I am honored to have been a part of your journey. You have taught me much. When you awake, I will be with you on the other side of the mist, where all of God’s children are united, all injustice abolished, and all hope restored.

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Mark Lutz is Sr. Vice President of Marketing for Opportunity International. He grew up in South Africa and has returned to Africa many times with people who are interested in supporting Opportunity’s Africa programs. This story is an excerpt from his book in progress.

Used with permission: Opportunity International is a non-profit microfinance organization dedicated to helping the working poor in 27 developing countries.  Founded in 1971, Opportunity International provides small loans and other services that enable entrepreneurs to start or expand a business, develop a steady income and provide for their families.  By giving the entrepreneurial poor a “working chance”, Opportunity International helps uplift entire communities through job creation. 

Motivated by the call of Jesus to serve the poor, Opportunity International serves people of all faiths and no faith.  85% of Opportunity International’s 1.2 million loan clients are women.

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