Not So Aimless... (#2)

After filling up a trunk worth of school supplies at Makro (the Zimbabwean version of Costco, spending over 20 million Zim dollars and having only $20,000 denominations to pay with, I headed back to Epworth and the Maulana school that I had stumbled across 1 week earlier.  I was actually hoping that the fat stacks of bills I just handed over (it's ridiculous the amount of cash have to carry around) would've purchased even more than it did, but with inflation now officially pegged at over 1000%, many standard items here are actually more expensive than in the States.  I stacked up on pens, pencils, workbooks, chalk, rulers, sharpeners and soccer balls.

On the drive to the township, I couldn't help but notice how much activity there was along side the road.  People everywhere were working to some capacity....either cutting wood, hauling supplies on makeshift carts, making bricks, thatching huts, fixing cars, or working a roadside market.  Times are genuinely tough here.  Unemployment is unofficially believed to be upwards of 70%, and with the cost of living going up at an unimaginable pace you get the sense that people are scrambling to find means of supporting themselves and their families any way they can.  Maybe the harshest reality of the bleak economic situation here is the growing evidence of child labor.  According to the I.L.O there are roughly 250 million child laborers working in conditions that are illegal, hazardous or exploitive in the world today...with 25% of those being in sub-Saharan Africa.  I'm getting a glimpse of it first hand as I make the journey down the dirt road through the Epworth township, stopping to take pictures of children working in a brickyard, harvesting in the fields or chopping and collecting wood wherever they can.....all during the middle of the day when under normal circumstances they should be in school.  I'm talking about elementary age kids.  I don't get the sense that there is vicious exploitation, but rather the undeniable need to have everyone in the family working to get by.

I make the turn at the makeshift Maulana school sign pegged to a tree stump.  By the time I reached the gate a group of kids had run up to open it for me.  The sight of this humble little school nestled into an amazing forest of monolithic boulders just blows me away.  It really looks like an oasis.

As I pull into the tidy little parking lot it becomes instantly evident that school is in session.  On the day I stumbled across the school it was a quiet Sunday and for the most part there were only the Maulana's and their kids to greet me.  This time, the Maulana's and a group of about 30 kids walked up to meet me as I got out of the car.  Mr. Maulana had shaved his face and his head, looking much younger and wearing pants and a shirt from the clothes I had left them.  I could see two large gatherings of students in the tent, more around the back of the school in the 'theater' area who were singing and dancing to a nice drum beat, and even more in the main classrooms.  I was greeted with a chorus of "Goooooood aaaafterrrrrrnoooooon mister Brrraaaaaaaden".  I guess they heard I was coming.  They lined up next to the car and I loaded them up with supplies to carry into the school.  As we walked in, everyone in the classroom leading into the office stood up and greeted me.  Then one by one I was introduced to each classroom (getting the same chorus greeting each time).  Okay now we're talking about many hundreds of students, all sitting on the floor or ground.  I would come to learn that in fact there were roughly 1500 students in total that currently attended the school, broken up into 2 sessions per day.  That day approximately 1300 had shown up, along with the 13 volunteer teachers (suddenly my trunk full of supplies seemed depressingly unsubstantial).  I would also come to learn that it was not an orphanage (though it started out that way), but rather a school for orphans.  Many of the students lived with older siblings, with relatives, or on there own.  Yeah, on their own!

I was an absolute interruption as I went around taking pictures of the classrooms, with everything coming to a halt as I stood there with all eyes fixed directly on me.  It didn't help that the secretary, Mr. Zisadza, kept having everyone stand up and greet me again (after being greeted upon arrival).  You can't help but laugh when you get the classic Zimbabwean double greeting (in chorus no less).......'Good afternoon, how are you?"  "I'm doing great guys, how are you?"  "Fine and you?"  "I'm still good".  I don't dare keep it going, but I'm willing to bet I could.

When I make it around to the back of the tent I'm treated to a private showing of song and dance.  These kids are seriously having a great time (and kicking up a major cloud of dust in the process).   I didn't get the sense that these were a bunch of kids without parents, without families and very little to look forward to.  I got the sense that these were kids being kids.  Smiling, singing, dancing, joking....such seems to be the miracle of the Maulana's influence.  That spark that they carry certainly translates into the spirit of the kids.  It's remarkable, and most probably exhausting. 

Mrs. Maulana continues telling me how this one lives with a  cousin, this one stays with friends of the parents, this one lives alone with her brothers.  I still can't get over alone and looking after themselves before even turning 13.  Turns out, the girl she is telling me about is named Promise.  She is eleven and has 2 brothers, one younger and one older.  The older brother (12) collects wood and sells it in bundles to provide money for their food.  Promise, being the woman amongst them, does all the cooking and cleaning....instantly the backbone of a family whose oldest member is 12.  The woman in traditional Zimbabwean culture carry an enormous family burden from a young age by any standard, but looking after a family from age 11 is hard to put into perspective.  It's very sobering actually.

Before leaving, I think of how cool it would be to invite some of my artist friends to come give a talk in front of the students as potential role models as artists who pursued their dreams and found great success from humble beginnings.....while bringing them to many corners of the world in the process.  I pitch it to the Maulana's and they agree that it would be nice, so we set it up for Monday morning.  Now all I had to do was go back and get my friends to agree...which I knew they would.  Getting them involved, as locals, is also a great way to facilitate and oversee fundraising.  As I'm driving away, I can't help but think of how much more is needed for the school.....lots more school supplies, desks, chairs, tarps, gas lamps (or electricity), running water (they have only a spring...which is actually a real bonus) and of course a guitar for Mr. Maulana (he mentioned it several times that he would like to teach guitar and sing for the kids).  Still, I can't get over what

they've done with next to nothing.

In the pictures below, take special notice of the ones of Promise, the eleven year old girl.  She's the one standing in front of the class in a flowered top and dress, another where she is sitting to the side and the solo shot above.  You can't miss her penetrating gaze, with eyes that seem sage far beyond her years.  Look around at all the children's faces and them come back to hers.  They all have faces and expressions fitting of children of their age.....until you get to hers.  She seems to be an old soul, with a gaze that is absolutely captivating.

Also take notice of little Tanaka, performing a solo dance for me in front of the class.  Precious.  I'm thinking carry on luggage.


Friday, May 19, 2006

Selected reading best experienced when paired with:

Maulana School - The Return Trip

click above to play

If you don’t know Oliver ‘Tuku” Mutukudzi and would like to check out his music, click here:

Tuku Music

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