Monday, January 28, 2008

Barney the goat

Friday morning we were surprised to find a goat in our backyard when we came home from our run. Our new neighbours are waiting for visas to move to Nigeria, and had received the goat as a gift. We named it Barney. Barney loves John and is terrified of me. Our neighbours had tied Barney to the tree on our side of the house. Sunday morning I looked out the kitchen window and saw that Barney was in our garden - nibbling away. I called out to him (he recognizes his name) but John said to leave him alone - looking so cute and just trying to get a snack. He started dreaming about having a pet goat. When we came home from the Cadets' welcome (5 hours later - but it was a lively service!) Barney had demolished our garden. Our cornfield looked like a hurricane had hit it. John no longer wants a goat. Our neighbours were embarrassed, but happy that we're white, because they said if we'd been Shona then we would have reported this to the headman and they would have had to pay a lot of money for the damage. The happy ending was that the corn on the cob was delicious!

The 2008 session of the Zimbabwe School of Youth Leadership starts today. I hope people (and food items) show up!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Patience and Praise

I didn't think it would be a special afternoon. It was Friday and I was feeling a little tired from my first week back in the office. I was just going to take it easy, but there was a lady waiting to see me - Patience. She had a screaming, hungry baby girl (Praise) wrapped on her back, and she told me her story. Patience is HIV+. When she found out she was pregnant, she tried to have an abortion, but they refused to do the operation at the hospital. They told her that the life inside of her was a miracle, and so she had to do whatever she could to help that miracle. And she is doing just that. Patience does not breastfeed her baby because HIV can be transmitted via breastmilk. She has been feeding baby Praise formula, but the price of baby formula in the shops (if you can find it) has just doubled. Patience has been making peanut butter as a business, but right now because of all the rains, it's hard to access groundnuts, so money is tight. She went to the hospital, and they gave her a prescription for formula, but there is no formula in the hospital pharmacy. So she came to The Salvation Army; and to me.

I felt absolutely brokenhearted listening to this beautiful young woman who is doing everything she can to make sure her little daughter has a chance in life. We don't supply baby formula here, so I tried making some calls to some agencies to see if anyone supplies milk. No calls got through because our phone lines were down. She doesn't have a phone or a way to be contacted, so I eventually just had to ask her to call back the next week.

I spent about an hour with Patience and Praise - talking a bit, but mostly just in silence. I was full of admiration for the sacrifices Patience is making to give her daughter a chance at life. I was moved and touched by the tenderness I saw between mother and daughter. I was thinking about a couple of close friends who are pregnant in Canada, and imagining their agony at being in this situation. I was thinking about a trip to Toys R Us I made while we were in Canada - seeing the mountains of toys, gadgets, books that most parents in my home country can afford for their children. When all Patience wants is milk. Life. I was thinking about how poverty kills. I was thinking about how love is stronger than everything else, but sometimes it doesn't feel that way.

The next week I called various government and nongovernmental agencies, but no one supplies baby formula anymore. "Times are tough in Zimbabwe" "You know our economy is in a bad state right now" "Well, we used to have programmes like this back in the days when things were ok..." I talked to a man at UNICEF and asked him what I could advise Patience. His response was, "just tell her to breastfeed." When I said, "but won't there be a high chance that the baby could contract HIV?" his response was, "Mrs. McAlister, it's better for the baby to get HIV than to starve to death." Those are the options for Praise: HIV or starvation. I was absolutely shattered. How can we tell Praise - and all the babies of this generation - that they were just born at a bad time? and so they don't get the chance to live?

I wish I could tell you that I did something heroic. But I couldn't. Yes, I gave Patience money to buy a tin of baby formula that would last a few days. She burst out crying, and tears kept rolling down her face, "may God bless you! I didn't know how I was going to manage, but God sent me to you." But what about when those few days are finished and once again the bottle is dry? John came up with an elaborate plan to import baby formula from Botswana to help mothers in this situation, but what about when we leave? What about when donors get tired? What do the babies do then? The baby actually has a higher chance of infection when mothers combine or alternate baby formula with breastmilk. It all just seems so hopeless and devastating.

I prayed with Patience and Praise - that they would have life; hope; endurance; miracles. But when they left I cried for a good few hours, and they have not left my mind or heart. When I was in Canada, everyone urged me not to get too stressed. One well-meaning friend advised me to curb my natural affinity towards caring for people and empathizing with them. But I wouldn't be me if I didn't love others; if I didn't share in people's pain as well as their joy. That's what love is! But sometimes love really hurts because there's nothing you can do... and that leaves you feeling quite shattered.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


My uncle Jim died last night. He was a funny, quirky great uncle always full of interesting stories and ideas. He will be missed and I'm praying for my auntie Marge today. We were far from Jim when he died, but we were at our own funeral last night. Amai Commissioner Shipe also passed away - a kind, thoughtful, gentle woman who always greeted us with a warm smile. We got a knock on our door just after 8pm, asking us to get dressed and come to the vehicle. I was visiting a friend, so John picked out a duku (bandana) and mutigida (cloth wrap to cover my pants) for me, came to get me and we made our way to the family's house. There was no electricity in that neighbourhood and so we mourned by candlelight. When we got to the house, all of the women were sitting in the living room, on the floor, lining the walls. And we went in and shook hands with everyone. Then John went outside with the men, and I went to the bedroom where Mrs. Shipe was lying peacefully in her bed. She had only been gone about 2 hours. Her husband sat beside her, crying, sometimes moaning, saying things like, "just stand up, my friend" and "I'm me because of you." Of course I was bawling. It was an honour to be in the intimacy of that room. I think personally I would want some "alone time" but that's not the African way. And so we all mourned together. Women came into the bedroom wailing, throwing themselves at the body and saying it was not time; that they had just come for a visit; not to say good-bye. When the undertakers came, we had a little service - singing and prayers - and then they took her away in a bodybag and her husband wailed in the bedroom. She will be buried in a few days. I can't imagine the shock. You go out to get a few medicines for your wife, you stop by friends' on the way home and tell them she's ok - improving, and then you arrive home and find that the love of your life is just... gone. And within an hour your house is full, and you need to start comforting others. Death seems so greedy here... I suppose there will always be light in Heaven; there will always be flowing water, never any hunger... that's a comfort.


I don't know if this made international news, but electricity in the whole of Zimbabwe (except for one province) and in most of Zambia was out since last night. A bit worrying... but now it's back - at least downtown (where we are at work). Our electricity at home has actually been off since Sunday. It finally came on last night - and we enjoyed 10 minutes - and then it was off - but not just for our neighbourhood, not just for the capital city - but for almost the whole country! That can't be a good sign of things to come!!!! I was getting a little worried - see without power, there's no running water, and without power, the boreholes in our neighbourhood don't work. So I was wondering how we were going to get water, and panicking that we were going to die of thirst! Sometimes my active imagination is not helpful. Anyway, I found out that the SBA (top business guy at Salvation Army) is working on a plan to hook up SALT College's generator to the borehole on our compound so that our neighbourhood will be able to access water.That would be good! I love water so much! I guess things will just keep getting worse in the country. It's so sad...

I don't actually mind not having much electricity, but having some is good - so we can email, wash our laundry, charge our computer/lamp, etc. We bought some sugarcane gel at lunch which powers our little stove. This means that we can cook - inside. I'm not so keen on the firewood thing, and I'm ashamed to admit that that probably makes me a snob. It takes a long time, it's bad for the environment, and it's raining almost every day, so the wood is usually wet anyway. Actually, people are concerned for us in a kind way. I was carrying 2 buckets of water from the borehole on Sunday and so many people offered to help me. I was going to try one on the head - but the water was just too precious to me at that point!

Water and electricity - two things I am most thankful for. But especially water. Have I mentioned that I love it?

Saturday, January 19, 2008


I chose my theme Bible verse for the year. It's Romans 12:12 "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer." I hope I can live this out.

I am just feeling so thankful right now... for so many things. Here are a few:

* I'm thankful that I married the right person.

* I'm thankful to live in Zimbabwe. It's a crazy place (we just got new $1million, $5million and $10million notes!) but I am becoming a more whole person here. I am amazed at how much my heart and mind keep being stretched. I am learning faith, patience, endurance, survival, joy and hope in Zimbabwe.

* I'm thankful that both my parents, both my brothers and my sister are alive - and that we're a close, crazy, loving family. I'm thankful for extended family too.

* I'm thankful for the way I was raised in my family and in The Salvation Army.

* I'm thankful for my health (I just ran 15kms, and my knees are sore, but I feel so alive!)

* I'm thankful for the little girl who held her dog as I ran by so that I wouldn't have to worry about being bitten!

* I'm thankful for my ears to listen to music and a voice to sing (recommended CD - "Send Me" University of Toronto Gospel Choir - it's awesome).

* I'm thankful for eyes to see and to read (recommended book - "In the country of men" Hisham Matar - set in the Libyan revolution - a great read).

* I'm thankful that I went to public school and learned to have an open mind. And I'm thankful that I grew up in a country where I could think and say anything I wanted to.

* I'm thankful for good friends, and for knowing so, so many good people.

* I'm thankful for daily bread, a husband who cooks and a place to live

* I'm thankful for running water and electricity, this computer and our washing machine.

* I'm thankful for the many different seasons in my life.

*I'm so, so thankful that I know God and that God shows me love, mercy, compassion, patience and miracles every day.

P.S. I'm also thankful for our vacation in Canada (pictures are now posted on the photos page!)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

2 visitors

I've learned to welcome unexpected visitors to my office rather than to panic about the work I won't get done while they are here. Yesterday I had two such visitors. One was an older white man. His wife had just collapsed in a clinic next door and so he came in saying he just wanted a place to sit down and collect himself. He started asking me questions about the meaning of life and told me about all of the people in his life he has lost to death. The other visitor was a young guy in his early 20s. He lives in the townships and he is one of our department's heroes - working with orphans and vulnerable children in spite of severe economic hardships. He was telling me about how last month he had really contemplated leaving the country for greener pastures. But he doesn't want to abandon the children in his area. He is working, and therefore supporting his parents, his brothers and sisters as well as many relatives and he is really feeling the pressure. He also started crying as he talked about the many friends he lost in the month of December. He said in that month he received a funeral message on his phone each day. Each day of that month he learned about a different friend or family member who had died. "I'm crying now, but at the time you don't even have time to cry. You know you just have to accept it, because another message will be coming soon. But it's very difficult to face death again and again and again."

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


I've never really been comfortable with the image of an angry God. I believe that God is full of love, compassion and mercy - a Father who cares deeply for us and wants hope for us; not punishment. I feel like skipping over the parts in the Psalms that are so angry and violent. I'm not really angry by nature either. I've rarely thrown objects or yelled at others or been in a "rage." But I find that here I feel angry a lot - and I internalize it - sometimes to the point of making myself sick. I know this is unhealthy and to be avoided, but some things just really do make me angry. Yesterday there were 4 things that stood out in my mind. 1 - long, snaking bank queues - people waiting all day in the hot sun to try to pay school fees for their children or to take out a few of their own precious dollars. 2 - a dumptruck squashed full of standing people - because there was no other form of transport. 3 - a child of about 7 sleeping in the middle of the street. Situations that dehumanize people make me angry. And then there's the puppets.

Back in 2003 a proposal was put forth to train people in using puppets to teach about issues like HIV/AIDS. It's taboo to talk about issues of sexuality in mixed-generation company, and yet puppets can say anything so it was proposed that they could be a good medium for talking about sensitive issues. The project was approved in 2004, but never implemented, so I was asked to implement it. The project money equals over $32,000US, and the budget is quite impressive - training, follow-up training, car battery, sound equipment for teams, keyboards, fuel for traveling to remote areas, theatres, materials, administration costs, etc. It's all there. We had hoped to train40 people, but we're starting with 15 next week. I put together my budget. It's going to cost us $1billion (approx. $400 in real money) for 15 delegates and 3 facilitators to stay at the Salvation Army college for 6 days. And I figured about $500 million ($200) to buy supplies to make the puppets. I went to the finance secretary yesterday to get the budget approved. This project money came through official channels in The Salvation Army and therefore the money needs to be exchanged at the official bank rate. Which means for over $32,000US we're getting $1billion. The whole budget - over $32,000 US dollars - is going for food/accommodation for 6 days at our own college. No money for supplies, equipment, follow-up, etc. When I studied economics, I didn't really get the whole fixed exchange rate thing. Now I do, and it makes me absolutely angry. All the value of that money just... lost.

I'm always praying to have the heart of God. Maybe this is why I'm learning to be angry at real evil or injustice. But there's a time for everything. We can't be angry all of the time... (I actually find anger relief in meaningless t.v. like the O.C., season 1 of which I got for Christmas!)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Crazy about John

If I had to sum up our weekend I would have to do so by saying that I have the best husband in the world. I'm crazy about John.

It was our first weekend back home, and Friday night was fairly ordinary. We visited some friends and then watched Evan Almighty on the laptop. Saturday morning we went for our long run. John said he was feeling out of shape, so he only wanted to run 21kms (who runs a half marathon when they're out of shape??) I ran further than I ever have before - 14kms in 90 minutes. Oooh, I felt good. I'm not an athlete. I don't have that "push through the pain" attitude, but John has really encouraged me, and I feel so much healthier. When we got home, we decided to have our twice-yearly cockroach extravaganza. We cleared out all the cupboards in our kitchen and did an inventory of our food (by the way - food is coming back into the shops - we even found BEEF the other day - but it's just really, really expensive). We sprayed, scrubbed, washed and attacked. And there weren't nearly as many as last time. They do like popcorn though. I guess it's like maize, and they're Zimbabwean cockroaches after all... I was cleaning some dishes and noticed that the water pressure was getting really low. After awhile, I rushed to the bath to turn on the taps, but after we got an inch of water, the water went off. We shared the inch of water and tried to scrub off running/cockroaches. Like usual John let me use the bath water first (refer back to the weekend's theme!) As it turns out, water was off in the whole city - some sort of fault somewhere.

We decided to go into town to have a pizza and movie. John is still mystified by the whole Zimbabwean thing of talking to neighbours/on cellphone throughout the whole movie, but there were a couple of 14 year old girls who were commenting on how hot he was (true...) so that cheered him up! :) When we came back, the water was still off, so we went to the borehole with our buckets. We got hassled at the borehole, because water carrying is a woman's job. But John defied cultural norms and said that he wanted to help me carry the buckets home. Sunday morning he helped me wash my hair in the cold bucket water, and he never once made me feel badly for being a total suck about lack of water.

Sunday after church our water came on - and phones (so I got to talk to my parents!) The water was a little dirty, but I was just so thankful. I think I may have a minor obsession with being clean, and I really do love water so much... I put a load of wash on to celebrate the return of the water. 30 minutes later there was a flood in our washroom/living room. The dirt from the water had clogged the machine. I am PRAYING that there's no permanent damage. John did politely ask if I thought it was the best idea to do a wash knowing full well that the water was full of sediment, but he just got down on his hands and knees with me and we wiped the floor with towels for hours. He couldn't help but say, "you know, you're really kind and good with people, but I don't think you got enough of the practical sense genes" but he didn't get mad, and just kept mopping. I'm so crazy about John.

Friday, January 11, 2008


I love my parents. One of the best things about being home was hugging my parents over and over and over. The older I get, the more I am grateful for their unconditional love, encouragement and support, and the way they raised me and brought me into the world. I was born to one mother, and I love my mom. She is kind, thoughtful, full of faith, funny and constant. In Zimbabwean culture, you have more than one mom because your mom's sisters are considered to be your mother as well (amai nini) - just as much as your birth mother (therefore, you may need to be excused from work for your mother's funeral several times). Of course, I got another mom when I got married, and my mother-in-law is a wonderful woman - caring, committed, fun and hard-working.

I have two Zimbabwean mothers, and they are both remarkable women who have amazing faith, love, courage and grace. They have both accepted me with open arms, hearts and ears, and I love them dearly. For Christmas, my Canadian moms sent gifts for my Zimbabwean moms, and it has been a humbling, joyful experience to see them open these gifts. Neither of them had had a single gift to open on Christmas day, and so this week they had huge, wide smiles on their belated Christmas - sent all the way from the other side of the world by women who have never met them, but feel connected to them because of me. It's good to have moms.

It's also been a humbling reminder to have the repeated conversation, "what did you do for Christmas?" "we had a family funeral, and then another one on new years day." Death doesn't respect holidays here. It just steals people's mothers, father, sons, daughters and friends day after day, undramatically and painfully; unworthy of news headlines and yet devastating.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Banks and witchcraft

I think a lot of people are surprised that we came back to Zim. We always intended to (although many people tried to convince us to stay once we were home!) and we told people here, but I guess everyone who can get out of Zimbabwe is doing so. Everyone wants to hear about our holiday. So, I tell them, and then say, "and how was yours?" Silence. Then, "well, it was difficult." No cash, no food, no wonder! The bank governor announced to everyone that the $200,000 note would expire on December 31st, meaning that the highest value note at that time would be worthless if not deposited in the bank. So people lined up for days to deposit their money. Then the announcement came that the deadline was extended. Great ploy for getting cash into the banks. Bad consequence for people who surrendered all of their cash and now can't get it out of the banks!

Of course, we have been praying for Kenya. I read an interesting article today about the widespread looting that happened after President Mwai Kibaki was sworn in. The article was talking about a timber merchant in Mombasa who spread word that he had put a curse on all of those who had stolen from him. People started returning the items, because indeed they were having trouble urinating. Merchants turned to witchcraft when they saw the police were powerless to help them recover their stolen merchandise.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Couscous, billions and babies

John is still quite jetlagged. Yesterday he made couscous at 2:30am and it was delicious!

I'm getting back into the swing of things at THQ. I'm trying to implement a project that we got money for before I was here - it's training people in using puppets to teach about HIV/AIDS and other social issues. It's a taboo to talk about sexual issues in mixed generation situations, but no one seems to mind if puppets talk about them. I put together a budget for 15 people to eat and sleep for a week and buy some basic supplies to make the puppets - $1.5 billion. I never in my life imagined I'd be working with this kind of money! I brought the budget to the finance secretary and she asked me if I was serious. There's a cash shortage, and people can only get $5million/day, and here I am asking for $1.5 billion. But this is only for basics! I guess we'll see...

I also got to go see a brand new baby in the hospital yesterday. The mother was really expecting a boy, so this (their 3rd girl) is wrapped all in blue! A friend was expressing sympathy at the birth of another girl, and offered to sleep with the new mother's husband (since she has had success herself in producing boys). Generous...

Life in Canada is easier, but life in Zimbabwe is more interesting.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Resolution: no oreos for 2008

Back to life in Harare... yesterday at lunch we went to the shops to check out the situation. We were delighted to see that some of the shelves had food on them (pig heads, chicken parts, powdered milk, laundry soap, cookies, cheese - not bad, not bad!) but the prices were incredible. The equivalent of $12US for dish soap or $22US for a box of oreos (and these are US equivalents at the parallel rate!) But one shouldn't complain - at least these items are back on the shelves, right?

We came back to some new bearers' cheques (like cash, but not real currency) - $250,000 bill, $500,000 bill and $750,000 bill. A loaf of bread is $2.1 million now, so I'm thinking we need some higher value notes. But what do I know about economics?

Oh, and our backyard is a jungle. It has been raining like crazy and the grass is so tall. Our corn is getting tall too, though, so that's exciting. To me it's so sad that there is drought in parts of the country and flooding (declared a national disaster) in other parts. Couldn't God distribute the rain a bit more evenly?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Back home in Harare

We made it home to Harare yesterday afternoon. We're still tired and jetlagged, but happy to be back. It was really hard to leave, but now that we're back, we're back - you know? They did search our bags at customs, and asked a lot of questions about clothing we were bringing back into the country (I really hope they don't ban clothing - nudity just doesn't suit everyone!) but overall things went smoothly. The plane from Amsterdam to Nairobi was almost empty (I guess a lot of people have been canceling vacation plans to Kenya recently) so I got 3 seats to myself and had a lovely nap. Again, I have to say that the 40 hour journey is exhausting, but important - because it's like going from one planet to another.

Needless to say, we had an incredible, wonderful, refreshing holiday in Canada. We loved being around family and friends. We loved eating a great variety and volume of food. We loved seeing the snow (I even helped my dad shovel!) We loved being at our home church (although, sadly, a young man was murdered in Regent Park - our old neighbourhood - right before the Christmas pageant). It was marvelous just to walk around Toronto. I dragged my sister from Yonge & Bloor to U of T down to the waterfront. It was good to see people celebrating Christmas (although I was reminded of the insanity of materialism and gift giving anxiety that people feel). It was good to ride the TTC. It was good to get hug after hug after hug.

I have to make special mention of New Years because it was memorable. We spent New Years Eve day at Paul & Liz's and had fun with aunts, uncles and cousins. My cousin Jesse got a "wii" for Christmas and so we all had a turn. I must admit that I felt like I was visiting from the African village - and amazed at this new technology. We also did some old fashioned/non-computer screen involved games which was good for me too! On the way home, Mom, Dad, Johnny, John and I stopped by Grandma and Grandpa's and that was great. Then we drove back to my parents' and we were waiting for the rest of the fam. Our friend Matt came to the door and explained that he was trying to find a dance party for developmentally challenged people, and got lost. He wondered if he could bring his friends in to dance at our place. My ever-gracious-hostess-mom agreed of course. So, Matt came in with 4 friends, Dad McAlister let us borrow his Beatles CD and then we danced. Johnny took one look at our party and suggested he'd rather go downstairs and watch a movie! Joel, Kirsten, Josh ("I feel like I'm on acid!!!") and Mirriam were confused as they came in to the 60s dancing, but then they joined in and supplied some great moves. We also had to have an early countdown at 10pm so they could get back early. I truly love the random-ness of my family!

Hopefully photos will be posted soon...