Monday, June 30, 2008

A surprise - back in Toronto

We're back in Toronto. It all happened really fast. Last Tuesday (the day after I last blogged) it was announced in Zimbabwe that we would be leaving the country. Then we left Thursday afternoon (two days later; the day before the re-run of the election). The Salvation Army in Canada had become quite concerned about our situation in Zimbabwe. Things have definitely changed since March (the election). No longer were we just stressed about not finding food or lack of electricity or water or freedom. All of a sudden there was a widespread campaign of terror, with many, many people being beaten, tortured, killed, forced to attend political meetings and rallies, others being forced to flee their homes, crackdown on all NGOs... the list goes on. The violence started coming into Harare, and to be honest, I wasn't feeling as safe anymore.

The past week has been incredibly rushed, emotional and crazy. We had two days to wrap up our two years and two months in Zimbabwe. It was insane (although I thank God for those two days, because one option being considered was for us to leave straight from South Africa, and then we wouldn't have been able to say good-bye at all). We packed up our little house and had to decide who to give what to. We gave away almost anything, and yet minutes before we left, there were still children and old women looking through our garbage outside to see if there was anything to salvage. I know it was the right decision to go. I know that it's not healthy to be pregnant and constantly stressed about what could happen. But it was so hard to leave. Starting from Tuesday we had a steady stream of visitors in our house - people coming to say good-bye; people coming to say that they understood why we were leaving, but they were just so disappointed. It was beautiful to have so many prayers prayed over us - from old gogos to little kids. The hardest good-byes for me were with my two mothers. They have both experienced a lot of loss in their lives, and our departure was just one more. Thursday many of our friends came out to farewell us at the airport. I was crying by the end, and John thinks my sobbing made our exit past immigration/CIO/customs, etc. nice and easy. But I bawled and totally wanted to turn back. I'm thankful that it was such a long journey home, because it gave us time to adjust to the idea of being in another world.

How do I feel? Physically I feel fine - just a little tired from lack of sleep in the past days and stress. Emotionally I feel all kinds of things. It's good to be home. I feel like eating everything I see and I like the sense of feeling free and safe, and being with family and friends. But to be honest, mainly at this stage I feel like part of my heart is missing, and I'm worried for my family and friends in Zimbabwe. Also, it feels weird to just resume my "old life" when I've had such a "drastic" experience (that has felt more like 10 years than 2). However, we're back, and now we just need to start a new chapter. Right now we don't know what that will look like, but in good time... Of course, thank you to all of those who have prayed for us, and who have prayed for Zimbabwe. Please don't let the prayers stop! They're still so needed.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Back in Zim

Saturday we went hiking in the hills with Stacey and Bijou, so John was thrilled (even with the "war wound" to his leg) and Buhle cooked us supper. I think that's the first time I've seen an African man cook in the home.We got back to Zimbabwe yesterday. Besides new forms for entry (requesting our parents' names and places of birth, etc.) everything went smoothly. Monitoring people's movements is becoming a big feature in Zim these days. If you want to leave your village to come to the city, you need to get written permission, and to state exactly where you're going, why and for how long. And of course, many, many people have been moved beyond their will to flee violence and that means they cannot vote Friday in the place where they are registered.

I went to our church for the afternoon service. Since becoming pregnant, I've been skipping the afternoon service to take naps, but it is a better service, in my opinion. There's much more dancing and lively singing and hosho playing and timbrels. I can't believe I spent so many years of my life without dancing in church... I have always admired the joy in church services in Zimbabwe. Joy through tough times; dancing upon injustice. Yesterday I was also just thankful for the freedom to go to church. Many people in our nation were prevented from going to church yesterday - either because they were afraid to leave their homes, or because when they got to church, the whole congregation was loaded into a bus to attend the mandatory political rally (making it look like all the churches are supporting a certain party).

A friend came by after church to give us some advice. He said that people in town (and at road blocks) are being stopped and requested to say one of the new political slogans, to prove their support and to show that they've been at the rallies. The one he taught us was "WW - win or war" (catchy? scary?) I think our white skin might betray us, but at least we know it if we're asked. We were also told not to go out at night. Many people are "disappearing" for an evening or a night and coming back bruised and beaten. One of the main slogans for ZANU-PF is "100% independence" and "100% empowerment." Is this true independence and freedom? Or is it fear and intimidation? We heard that the Opposition has backed out of the re-run (because he's being prevented from doing any campaigning, and there's no way this is free or fair), so we are unsure what will happen this Friday. Please keep praying for Zimbabwe.

Friday, June 20, 2008

World Refugee Day

It's World Refugee Day today. I worked at The Salvation Army's Immigrant & Refugee Centre in Toronto for 2 years and loved it. It was an awesome job, and I truly appreciated the joy of being surrounded by newcomers to Canada from almost every country imaginable. There will always be a special place in my heart for refugees. I cannot imagine the pain of being forced to leave your home due to violence. Although now I live in a country where this is happening on a daily basis...

Today we went to an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp here in Joburg. It was eerie to drive by the thousands of tents in one camp on our first night - to see that scene in South Africa. But they've been set up all around the country due to the xenophobic attacks here. We went with the local Salvation Army to serve lunch, and my French really came in handy, because we met many Congolese and Burundians who had been victimized. John was giving out the apples and oranges, and being the health-nut that he is, allowed people to come through 3 - 4 times to get their fill of fruit! They told us horrible stories about being chased, thrown out of combis, kicked out of their jobs and their homes, being beaten, some even being burned alive. There are plans to repatriate them, but the problem is that many of them came to South Africa to escape violence and war. We even saw one of our Zimbabwean neighbours in the camp. He had moved to South Africa to try to survive and make a life for himself, but then he faced this hatred. Stacey was telling us that one woman who gave birth during the attacks named her child Xeno. He will never forget. This is the rainbow nation with 11 official languages, and a huge victory over apartheid in its recent history, but the huge inflow of illegal migrants has caused competition for housing and jobs with poor South Africans, and therefore this hatred erupted. Let's pray for harmony. One thing that did amaze me was that in the camp (and in Stacey's English class yesterday) when people heard we were living in Zimbabwe, they said "sorry!" and showed pity. Just like when I was in the IDP camps in Northern Uganda last year, the people in this terrible situation felt sorry for US!

On a cheerier note, we did go ice skating last night - which was random and fun. Trinity (the very cute two year old that we're staying with) skated on her own, to the delight of her Canadian mother as well as Zulu father. I was impressed too. Ice skating is so magical and romantic - as long as you can stay on your feet and get hot chocolate afterwards! It was an awesome night.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Comrades and Durban

Greetings from Joburg. We are back from Durban. John ran the Comrades on Sunday with over 11,000 other people, running from Pietermaritzburg to Durban (89kms). Unfortunately, John got sick and was vomiting, cramping and generally enduring pain. It was also quite hot. I was SO relieved when I finally saw him run into the stadium in just under 11 hours. I admire John for many reasons, but one is his determination and courage to press on even when things are really tough. He did it! Of course, he was disappointed, but I was really proud. I had an interesting chat with another "fan" in the international tent. She asked where I was from. I said, "Canada, but I live in Zimbabwe now." Her response was, "well, those are 2 very different countries. I think Zimbabwe made the front page today - let me check my newspaper. Yep there's the headline, "Mugabe declares war" (on his own people) - oh, sorry about that." Canada never makes the news - it's such a "boring" place to live (and yet so safe and with so much food!) That night we celebrated John's achievement in our hotel room with room service (cheeseburgers). I was so excited! We haven't had room service since our honeymoon! It feels so grown up... :) We also saw the top 3 female winners in our hotel the next day. I felt starstruck. They're all Russian and REALLY fast.

The next day we rested and spent time at the beautiful beach. I LOVE the ocean - seeing the waves crash in and just feeling God's majesty. Then it rained for 2 days. We spent one at a mall (OK, I was amazed and overwhelmed by the cornerstore, with all of its bread and milk products, nevermind a mall!) And then we spent a day at uShaka marineworld. There was a dolphin show, a seal presentation, and we dined with sharks (it's a restaurant in the bottom of a ship with a huge window leading to tank with sharks in it). They had giant seaturtles too. The aquarium was beautiful. The fish were so cool, and there were so many species I'd never seen before. I wish I could show you photos, but we didn't have the camera. All I can recommend is that you come to Durban and visit uShaka. You won't regret it. There is also a lot of food in South Africa. It's nice to see and John thinks we've gained 10lbs since Friday. Now we're in Joburg with our friends til Sunday. Everyone thinks Stacey and I are sisters since we look "exactly alike." She's a lot of fun, and so is her family. I've heard rumours that we're going ice skating tonight...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

NGOs, a rooster and a race

All Non-Governmental Organizations have been asked to cease activity and help until further notice (i.e. likely until after the run-off elections on the 27th). Certain agencies were accused of telling people that unless they vote for the opposition, they will not receive food. Now the people don't have a chance to comply or not to comply. No food is being given out. Some people who were relying on NGOs for their ARVs are now stranded; missing their life-giving drugs. I was meant to attend a meeting today of various HIV/AIDS organizations. It was called off because the organizers fear widespread arrest (the guy who phoned me to tell me about the meeting asked, "do you honestly want to be in jail until after the 27th?" Uh, no!) Only "voter education" meetings are allowed these days in the country (i.e. how to vote for the ruling party). All other gatherings are suspect. Church services have been interrupted, and even funerals can be hijacked. A friend was telling me that he attended a funeral for a relative in the rural areas. A war veteran stood up in the funeral and started pointing his gun at the mourners - telling them to make sure they vote the "right" way. The situation in this country will not cease to devastate me. I get it - pride, selfishness, thirst for power, fear of personal security for the future... but how can you live with yourself knowing that you're making your own people suffer so much?

Now, I know I'm supposed to refrain from the stress-inducing/depressing blogs, but sometimes I need to get it out. On a lighter note, have I told you about the rooster? He is our neighbour's and he has a very high and loud voice! Unfortunately, I think the rooster is developing some form of dementia. In my mental health courses at grad school, we never actually covered poultry, so this is just an educated guess. You see, this rooster (which is actually closer to our house than to our neighbour's - convenient!) crows throughout the night. We used to think it was a "quaint" alarm clock, but now it's a really loud on-the-hour chime. John is generally a peaceful, easy-going man, but he is considering the option of premeditated murder. We need to pray for him.

We also need to pray for John because he's running Comrades on Sunday - yes, that insane 89km race in Durban, South Africa! We fly out tomorrow and we're going to spend a few days' holiday in SA before returning to Zim. He's been training a lot, and doing more hill work, so he hopes to complete in less than 9 hours. (Is this insane?) He found some running buddies a few weeks ago, so we'll meet up with them when we get there. Go Team Zimbabwe! In case I'm not on the net - Happy Fathers' Day for Sunday! Three cheers for all the amazing dads out there...

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Nice things

- We had a doctor's appointment today. I love the ultrasounds - seeing our little one moving around. The doctor says everything looks good and healthy. Also, that my slight dizziness when I stand up to sing is normal! The baby waved at us and also looked relaxed with her/his hands behind his head! For the third time in a row, the doctor has given us a free appointment. In this context, that is crazy generous (the woman before us paid $45billion)! Most women here have never had an ultrasound, so we are blessed.

- A man offered me a free banana on the street the other day. Again, incredibly generous in this context (since they cost $500million/each). When you've got it, you've got it! (I wonder if I'll still look 18 when I'm 60?...)

- We had caesar salad last night for supper and it tasted like a miracle.

- There's a Salvation Army church that sends us CDs of their services once a month (Woodroffe Temple). The one I listened to this morning had my parents' voices on it because they were the guest speakers. What a treat! I even got to hear my dad tell a story for kids' time - just like the good ol' days.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Our angel and my son-in-law

Last night an angel appeared at our front doorstep. She didn't have wings nor a long white robe, but her smile was angelic. Our friend Kim is the administrator for Masiye Camp - this amazing Salvation Army camp in the south of the country that runs holiday camps for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. They also serve their community with a whole variety of incredible programmes. Kim is a superstar and we love her. For her work she often has to travel to Botswana to get food supplies, etc. This time she went and thought of us. Check out what she brought to our doorstep last night (out of the blue)... caesar salad dressing, lasagna noodles, bacon, eggs, oreos, tomato paste, corn flakes, lemons from her garden... She is a pregnant woman's dream! I was really touched by Kim's generosity (so much so that I ranked her with angelic status). What a friend. It's clear that she read my blog about food cravings (don't we all want friends who truly listen to us?) and then she went out of her way (ok, she went out of her country!) to buy us special treats. I am truly touched. Friendship is a beautiful thing. Being loved is a beautiful thing. So many of us think of doing nice things for others and then don't take action. Kim took action. Thanks, Kim!

I just spent the day at an interesting inter-church meeting on the national HIV behaviour change strategy for Zimbabwe. I blogged about behaviour change yesterday, so I won't go into it. But three interesting things happened at the training: a) when we were making introductions, one woman got up and said "I am 59 years old. 8 years ago I found out that my husband had another wife and was living in a polygamous marriage without my knowledge. I went to get tested for HIV and learned that I was positive. We got divorced and now I'm living positively." The room was silent. b) they gave us a "sitting fee" just for showing up. This amount was more than we have in the entire HIV/AIDS account at my workplace and my monthly salary put together. Hmmm. c) They served us lunch at this meeting. I sat down at a table, and then an older man came and sat beside me and I learned that he is a Lutheran bishop. Someone came by and called me Mai Shumba. I explained how we were given totems when we came to Zimbabwe and that John is a lion and I'm a monkey. Then he got nervous and said "so you're my mother in law and that means that I can't eat facing you." I told him that I thought we could let it pass - seeing as he didn't know about our connection when he sat down! :)

Monday, June 09, 2008


In my undergrad I took a fascinating course on African politics with a brilliant Nigerian professor. He loved my first paper and thought I was a genius (which was great for my ego!) Then I wrote my second paper - on AIDS in Africa. I did a lot of research and tried to cover as many "aspects" as possible. He didn't even mark it and returned it to me with the comment, "see me after class." So I did, and he said he was shocked and disappointed to read my section on behaviour patterns that promote the spread of HIV. I had written about the mines in South Africa - how migrant men were kept alone for months/years working in the mines without seeing their families and the availability of prostitutes and then the men bringing HIV back to their families. I had written about the dangers of truck drivers carrying HIV within and across borders. And many other examples. In my essay I covered the massive effect of poverty on HIV and the role of the West, but I also wrote about how Africans could change behaviour patterns to lower the risk. My professor called me racist and a huge disappointment, since he had thought I was so promising. I was crushed. A person like me finds the "racist" label pretty hard to swallow.

Now I'm an HIV/AIDS Coordinator living and working in Zimbabwe. Of course I'm still very young in this field, and still a visitor in this country. I'm very far from being an expert on anything, but I've had the opportunity to be in many forums on HIV and I've had open ears and eyes. I still believe that the West's failure to help and extreme poverty are huge instigators for HIV, but I can't dismiss behaviour change either. I've heard some frightening stories - like the sex worker who was sexually abused as a child and later raped and infected by a family member. She took on her profession as revenge - to try to infect as many men as possible. Or the truck driver who keeps himself "safe" by only sleeping with married women along his routes. He picks them up and makes them pay for their "lifts" with sex - often in front of her children who are with her. Many people in the church still promote the idea that condoms are evil/sinful or that if a wife requests her husband to wear one, it's because she is being unfaithful herself. I've blogged before about the persistent belief that men simply cannot control themselves sexually, and therefore if they are dissatisfied at home, they have the right to go find other women to meet their needs. Then there's polygamy... I'm a liberal. I'm used to blaming the West for everything. But some of these practices aren't that helpful! We ALL have a responsibility to ensure that millions of people on this continent stop dying so unnecessarily.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Scary white people and winter mornings

The other day some kids were playing at the back of our house. One of them - Gina - climbed on a pipe in order to try to look in our window. She fell and the pipe broke. When I came home, one of the other kids told me about this, so I went to Gina's parents, explained, and just asked them to remind her to be careful. They did more than that. They told her that they were angry, that I was angry, and that if I ever saw her around the house again I would eat her! Yesterday I saw the poor thing and she ran away from me as fast as she could. I went to the house and made peace. I can see where some kids get the idea that murungus (white people) are scary!!

It's winter here. The middle of the day is still quite warm, but the morning and evenings are cold. We have blankets and sweaters, and it's not exactly winter by Canadian standards, but mornings can be tough: #1 - getting out of a warm bed (thankfully, this is made easier when you get to snuggle the love of your life before you do so), #2 - getting out of a hot bath (thankfully, this is made easier on days when there is electricity and you can make yourself a hot chocolate), #3 - eating oatmeal that makes you gag because there are no other breakfast alternatives (thankfully, this is made easier by dousing the oatmeal with raspberry jam!) Food shortages suck - especially when you're pregnant. But we're ok. John even made a sort-of-version-of lasagna the other night. He's a culinary genius.

P.S. I had a dream about a baby just before I woke up and it was marvelous. I actually recognized this baby as my brother Josh (24 years ago!) and he was bouncing like crazy, so happy to see me. I woke up REALLY happy! :)

Thursday, June 05, 2008


If you've spent time with many missionaries/international NGO workers, you'll probably have noticed that when they come home they're either: a) amazing people with a broader worldview and a beautiful grace and gratitude or b) bitter and angry. I really hope I can be a! I think I will be, but I must admit that sometimes I do feel bitter and angry.

The other day I was looking at the website for a Salvation Army officer serving in the Philippines. She is working at a children's home, and I was looking at her photos from Christmas day last year. It was so cute to see all of these kids with wide smiles at their one gift and special meal for Christmas. But (I'm ashamed to say) part of me also felt anger/sadness at these photos. I thought back to Christmas 2007 in Zim. It was a tough one in this country. Even people who were working could not access their own money from the banks (because they said they were empty). No one had cash, or special food, or toys. I don't know a single child who got a Christmas gift this year. That is not fair.

We were talking to a friend the other day - a Salvation Army officer. He is really committed to his work. He works 14 hour days for a pathetic salary, and yet he always seems to manage a smile and good attitude. He was saying his youngest son approached him saying "Dad, bring me toys from town." When he recounted the story, our friend laughed, "where could I ever find toys?" He spent some good hard-earned money on an orange and brought it home for his son. The son cried and said he wanted a toy! My heart broke for our friend. Imagine being a dad and not being able to afford a single toy for your child...

We came home the other day to find kids working in our garden. When we first moved here, John was quite handy in the garden, but he has lost his spark this year, and our backyard is full of weeds. So these kids came and started digging, hoeing and pulling up weeds. As a reward we gave each of the kids a pencil with a butterfly eraser and a half pack of gum. You should have seen them staring at these erasers - bursting with pride at their "prize." (And you should have seen how many kids we had working in the garden the next day!)

Of course it's a blessing to see kids being creative - playing with sticks and old tires and plastic bags rolled into soccer balls. But part of me thinks it's really unfair that none of them have a real toy or a kids' book. I've said it before, and I will say it again - extreme poverty SUCKS! And yet there is grace and gratitude, because these kids are unbelievably happy. Joyful. It doesn't make sense, and yet it's beautiful!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

I'd pay a billion (zim) dollars for a caesar salad right now...

I'm craving... caesar salad, lasagna, apple sauce... (why do I do this to myself?)

I'm finding it strange... to look down at my stomach and see a "bump."

I'm wishing... Happy Birthday to my Jamaican mother - Mama Joy! I love you!

I'm learning... that if my family was Shona, John's parents would be WAY more excited about this upcoming baby than mine. Because the baby would be their REAL grandchild (with the McAlister name and totem). But in all honesty and Canadian-ness, I think mine are pretty excited!

I'm amazed... that there is a $50billion note now. When will the madness end?

Sunday, June 01, 2008


My mom was telling me about an article she read last week on best and worst cities. I'm not sure where it was published. Vancouver was #1, Toronto #5 and Harare.... dead last. When she told me this my first reaction was to burst out laughing (I live in the worst city in the world?!?!) and then I started to reflect on this my adopted city.

If I were to be honest, I'd tell you I'm not a huge Harare fan. One of my favourite things about our Christmas holiday in Canada was walking the familiar streets of Toronto - feeling comfortable, at home and safe. Harare... well, it's just different. There's something about all the armed soldiers and riot police walking around, the power and water shortages, the sometimes-empty or sparse shops, the phones being tapped, the skinny yet fierce stray dogs, the sewage and garbage piling up (especially in the high density areas), the long queues for bread, sugar, cash or other rare items, the lack of entertainment (but this could be just because we don't have a car)... Honestly though, it can't be the WORST city in the world to live in! There's a great pizza place (maybe this doesn't count because 98% of the population couldn't afford a pizza?), the roads are still quite good (just try to avoid potholes), the weather is awesome (can a city take credit for this?) and the crime rate is amazingly low. I can't say Ha-ha-harare is fun capital of the world, but it's not that bad. I feel guilty for having written this - like I'm betraying my adopted land. We do love the people in Zim, but the city... well, we could take or leave it.

By the way, God gave me a miracle on Saturday. We were taking a combi partway home from town. In order to make maximum profit, the combi drivers stuff as many human bodies as possible into their vehicles. I was squished between the side and a big man, and then another man came to lean on top of me. My face was literally in his armpit. The combi was stuffy and I started feeling really faint. Then God gave me my miracle! The window next to me actually worked and I could open it a crack. Fresh air. Beautiful, wonderful fresh air - so much nicer than armpit residue! Thank you, Lord!

Dad and John

I have the best dad in the world. You can try to argue with me, but I already know I'm right. I love my dad so much! He's honest, fun, funny (in his own way), kind, thoughtful, spiritually deep, encouraging and many more. Also, when we were kids and my mom would go away, he would let us make "cheese in a cup." It's a simple recipe - you take a block of cheese, put it in a cup and melt it in the microwave. Mmmm. Mom didn't let us do this, but Dad did. Happy belated birthday, Dad. Wish I were there to give you a hug in person...

I have the best husband in the world. You can try to argue with me, but I already know I'm right. I love John so much! He sacrifices a lot for me (including the covers on a cold night). He always takes the bath water after I've used it and lingered in it when it's most hot, and when I order a meal that's too heavy or that I don't like, he always trades with me. He also believes me now that some foods just make my stomach turn (due to pregnancy) and so he doesn't force me to eat them, even if they're healthy. John is the love of my life. I almost always fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow but the other night, John miraculously fell asleep before me. I watched him sleep and started bawling at the thought that I love him so much. He was even gracious about being woken up by the sobbing!

See, there are some good men out there!