Living the Christmas story in Zimbabwe
“A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves … Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger.”
Ben Okri, Nigerian Booker Prize winning novelist and poet.
The Christmas story is as familiar to most Australians as a well-worn shoe: comfortable, reliable and maybe even a little down-at-heel.
But for some, the telling of a story that begins with obscurity and ends in joy is nothing short of miraculous.
In the heat and dust of a suburban slum in Zimbabwe, this story lives in the heart of every child in the compound.
Not a story of dragons, princesses or pirates, but the story of a boy who never met his father, was raised by his grandmother and only learnt to read at the age of 13, sitting among the six-year-olds in first form at school.
It’s the story of the “boy” who now leads Matthew Rusike House, a residential project caring for vulnerable children, and it’s a story that reminds every child that the past doesn’t have to define the future.
“Matthew Rusike is run by Astonishment Mapurisa, in partnership with the Methodist Church of Zimbabwe and UnitingWorld,” explains Sue Kaldor, a Uniting Church member who recently visited the project.
“Astonishment is a particularly apt African name! Every child who comes to that place knows that the man at the top shares their background — he’s a respected leader who came from somewhere very ordinary, just like them.
“They find that astonishing. They may not give voice to it directly, but every person there is living out the foundational story of Jesus.”
What’s the good of a Christmas story if it doesn’t come to life?
In Epworth, a suburban slum area of Harare, the story of children born into obscurity who are yet cherished, who bring peace, who rise above their circumstances and are transformed, is lived out daily.
Some of the children who arrive at the Home are HIV positive and may well have been living alone, caring for other siblings.
At Matthew Rusike, they are assigned to small ‘families’ of 12-14 children, who live with one “Mama” in traditional dwellings within the main compound.
“I have a social work background,” explains Sue. “So I was particularly interested in the ability of the Carers to build resilience within the children. I asked each of the Mamas what they found difficult about the role and they each replied in exactly the same way: nothing.
“I found that extraordinary. They’re dealing with traumatised young people in very difficult circumstances- some of the Mamas have not been paid for several months. And yet they reply that they find none of it difficult! How is that possible?”
Part of the answer, according to Sue, lies in the community setting of the Home.
“There are no professional, distant relationships at Matthew Rusike,” she observes. “The ‘Mamas’ live with the children around the clock, the food grown in the veggie patch is what’s served on the table, people celebrate together. This all helps build resilience in the children.”
Zimbabwe is a nation in need of resilient children.
The average life span is just 34 years and the incidence of HIV/AIDs infection is high, at around 14% of the population aged 15-49. 80% of people are unemployed.
Politically, the country is holding its breath as leader Robert Mugabe, ironically, inches past his 87th birthday. No one quite knows what will happen upon his death- Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, educated within the Methodist Church- is poised to lead, but the factions are restless.
Dr Kerry Enright, UnitingWorld’s National Director, says that the next few years will be key to the development of a democratic Zimbabwe, and that the local church is eager to play its role.
“Churches nourished national leaders in the past.”
Dr Enright says, “They feel the same responsibility now as Zimbabwe prepares to rebuild its economy, re-establish a fair judicial system and make space for a robust civil society.”
With elections due next year, the country stands at something of a crossroads. Collectively, the story to which they give their hearts will be significant, and the narrative Zimbabwe’s leaders choose has the power to shape the future.
But at the grassroots level, the story of Matthew Rusike, its children and carers is already changing lives.
“Basically they’re living out our faith story, which begins at Christmas, and leads to resurrection and redemption,” observes Sue Kaldor, reflecting on her time in Epworth with the UnitingWorld InSolidarity visit.
“They’ve come from a place where they’ve had no options and they’ve been transformed, and that’s a deeply theological story to live. They feed off that story, because they have the hugest mountains to climb. But it’s the kind of story that is also enormously sustaining. The results speak for themselves.”
For more information on the work of UnitingWorld in Zimbabwe go to www.unitingworld.org.au.
You can support the Methodist Church in Zimbabwe live the Christmas story by choosing Water Matters gifts from our Everything in Common Gift Catalogue.
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