toward the ledge:

changing the world thru loving and serving others. without agenda


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women of makanya village: habiba and ester

before i introduce you to the first two stories,  i feel led to share this with you.  i recently read that wisdom was the choice of recognizing that pain and suffering is part of the human experience.  and that wisdom will allow us to melt into others, awakening our compassion.  i don’t know what your thoughts are, but this resonated with me rather strongly because of my experience here in africa.   i am conscious of how fortunate i am to have been born in this lifetime in a land of prosperity, freedom, and opportunity.  but i could have been born into poverty, been faced with survival decisions, no opportunities.  and my life would have been oh so much different.  there is no way that i can walk in the shoes of those that i meet here, no way can i imagine what they have been through.   most of us consider jesus as divinity.  and he didn’t simply come to teach about love and compassion.  he WAS love and compassion.  i try to keep that in mind as i serve here.  not to embrace ideologies, religiousities or rhetoric doctrines, but to do my best to emulate that goal to BE love and compassion. to lay aside judgements, walls, and fears.  to give what i can –  whether that is my attention, my time, my money, my talent, my heart. my love.  and that. simply.  is my mission.

meet ester and habiba. i was inspired by these two women.  i love their hearts and their spirit to make something good happen out of their situation. there is no ‘why me’ attitude.  in light of, in spite of their own challenges, they are demonstrating love and compassion to others.

ESTER is 40 years old, and never married, but has one child. as with many families in the village, members of her extended family live with her.  she is a tall, big woman with a big smile and hearty laugh.  in 2002, she started having health issues and symptoms that turned out to be indicators for HIV but it was 2005 before she was tested and diagnosed.  like most women, she had a few boyfriends when she was younger, but she really doesn’t know who she got the virus from.  ‘before’ HIV, she had a small business stand where she sold vegetables that she grew and/or gathered for sale but now she is unable to work, so struggles economically.  habiba helps her with food.

a few years after diagnosis, ester and habiba decided that they needed to start an open dialogue about HIV in the village, with a priority to help the children born with HIV.  they started KIWAMMA, a grass roots organization that advocates, educates and supports those in the village with HIV.  when i asked her what she would really love to see KIWAMMA do in 2012, it was about the kids.  currently they try to help 30 children get medical treatment and nutrition, even though they themselves struggle financially and for food themselves.  although there are probably hundreds of children affected in the village, they would like to increase that number to 50 in 2012.

HABIBA was born in 1958, also never married and has two children, and members of extended family living with her. she was diagnosed in 2004, after being very sick.  like in most cases, it took quite a while, many doctor visits and tests before it was discovered that she was ‘positive’.  for the most part, she has remained healthy by taking medications and eating as properly as she can.  eating properly, by the way, is a huge challenge for most of them.  most cannot afford to.  food sources not always readily available.  sometimes it means a bus trip to either same or moshi (30 minutes or 2 hours respectively).  however, recently she got very sick, becoming a matter of great concern for those that love her and rely upon her leadership, her grace, her spirit. the medications themselves can cause many side effects, including numbness, nausea/vomiting and others.  but she approaches that like she does everything.  you do what you must, and moves through it.  she is what we might call an amazon, very tall, big boned woman.  but her equally big heart is filled with a power that you cannot resist, and she is a source of support and spirit in this village, for those that have a disease that causes others to fear, to react, to retreat.

in fact, she said that by being open to the community about being HIV+, she and the others in the group actually now have a freedom that they didn’t have before – a freedom from the secret.  they can ask openly for assistance from government agencies, they can talk about the issues, and educate others. it also helps to diminish the stigma and to a degree, the gossip as no one is talking about if she is positive or not.  she is open about it!

she supports herself, and even helps those around her through hard work – she sells chipsi (we know them as fries) at a local stand,  grows onions and sells those, and also has a bit of a side business digging gypsum out of the ground to sell to transporters of gypsum.  honestly, i can’t imagine that all of that together brings her much income.  but in the spirit of her generosity, she shares what she has with other women and children that are HIV+.  and btw, the black and white image at the beginning of my previous blog – that is habiba!  there was also an immediate connection with her, her energy was something i gravitated to from the beginning.

as a co-founder of KIWAMMA, her heart lies in finding ways for the children to go to school as  well as the kid’s club that they formed to bring the kids without HIV together with those that do have it.  to provide age appropriate education for health issues, including malaria and HIV, to help them see that they can play together, be friends and it’s all okay.  to break down walls and stigmas.

especially after my visit to makanya, but because of what i live and learn here in afrika, i ask for the grace of wisdom to guide me on my path, so that i may serve God and humanity with the actions of my life.  and to walk in the acts of love and compassion. and at the same time, i say thanks to God for blessing me with the time in this land, working along side of others who demonstrate their own compassion and open hearts inspiring me.  people like emmason.  sadock johnson.  margaret.  cecy. ester and habiba.  i love you and am grateful for having you in my life.

if you haven’t already seen other photos from the trip to makanya village, here’s a link to the album.

https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.3247499869272.156102.1320191966&type=1&l=bbb32f50ad

and as always for those of you at home,  you are loved.  be love for those around you.  and you have my wishes for joy. peace. bliss. health. contentment. and laughter in your life.

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stories of heart….from makanya village…

if you are on fb or read my last blog, you know that i have been planning a trip to the village of makanya.  you know that the HIV+ women and children there have been placed upon my heart.  and so.  the next few blogs will be devoted to these stories.  i just think that there is too much to tell at one sitting – as it would become a mega blog (sheesh, this is kinda long already as it is).  so allow me to give you a bit of background…on how i came to learn about makanya, about the HIV/AIDS project.  and then i will focus on the stories of the people that i met.

emmason visits with rama

so meet my good friend emmason – he has a passion, a heart, a vision to serve the people of makanya village.  you cannot spend time with him without knowing this about him.  well, sure, he marches to his own drummer, and i like that about him.  he is also a safari guide and a musician. he is the father is a gorgeous little daughter.  he never meets a stranger, i swear he can strike up conversation with anyone.  but here’s the real thing about him – his focus is helping the people in makanya.  everything comes back to that -serving makanya.

his organization- pamoja afrika- is a sister organization to foot2afrika.  during the process of learning more about the pamoja projects (i also serve as an advisor to pamoja), my heart became particularly drawn to the HIV/AIDS project.  i wanted to know more, i had many questions, i felt i wanted, rather, NEEDED to write the stories.

so emmason said – come on, you need to come to makanya next time we go.  and so on feb 3, emmason, his cousin abiki and i jumped on a bus and headed off to makanya.

abiki and i walking to the bus stop, mountains in the back ground

there are approximately 9,300 people living in the village of makanya, a 2 hour hot sweaty bus ride from moshi.  surrounded by the pare mountains, it is beautifully set.  however, without many ways to make a living, times are hard and lean.  there are two main industries – gypsum and sisal.  neither pay decent wages; most villagers earn $3USD  a week or less.  the gypsum is exported; bringing in truck drivers who through the years have offered women money for unprotected sex.  in order to survive, to feed their children many of them made decisions that perhaps they didn’t prefer to make, perhaps they didn’t realize the consequences either.  but regardless, through the poverty, lack of knowledge of HIV, and lack of protection – HIV has spread through this village, as it has through so many others.   and it is believed that it has been primarily through these truck drivers and offers of sex that this has happened.

in 2011, HIV testing was made available to the village; approximately 43% or 4,000 agreed to the testing.  out of those tested, 1,800 resulted in HIV+.  but those in the village know that those numbers are not accurate.  they ‘know’ or at least strongly believe that many others are ‘positive’ but due to various reasons (fear of the stigma, fear of knowing the truth, etc) people have declined to be tested.  but even at 1,800 known, that is 20%.  the government provides HIV medications free of charge but for many the cost of getting to treatment (not available in their own community most of the time and certainly not here in makanya) is cost prohibitive.

well,  i only met 6 people during my time there, but as we walked through the village on friday evening on the way to the first home visit, i’m told that about every other house or so has an HIV+ adult or child living there.   many of the people we pass on the street are identified as ‘positive’.  that is not meant to be negative as those that have been tested and become part of a group that was formed have become open about the virus and their situation and more vocal about the issues.   however, yes, there is a stigma as well, especially with the children.  the children with HIV have social and psychological challenges.  they have most likely watched one or possibly both parents die of AIDS.  they then assume  that they will soon die, although with medication and proper nutrition they can live quite healthy and productive lives.  however, with compromised immune systems they are often sick, they do not get proper nutrition because there is not enough money.  they become withdrawn and because of the stigmas don’t often get to play openly with other children.  education is another victim of the poverty – many of the children are unable to go to school.  no money.  which is more isolation from their friends and social activity.  i find that incredibly sad and it does break my heart that these young children, born with the virus have even less of a childhood than so many of the other children in poverty here.

in 2007, some of the HIV+ women in makanya decided to be more public about their situation. they formed KIWAMMA, a group to advocate for women, and particularly the children with HIV. they currently support 30 of the hundreds of children living with HIV in the village; these women struggle to survive and support themselves, but they stand up, work toward solutions and partner with pamoja afrika in their efforts. one of their projects is a kid’s club that brings  ALL children together; they educate them (age appropriately)on various health issues, including malaria, HIV, etc and encourage combined play. they do home visits, help other women on nutrition, seek education support, and many other things.  i met the founders of KIWAMMA on my visit and i will share their stories and photos in the coming blog(s). they are beautiful women with incredible spirits, and they are now my sisters.

i’ll be honest.  i went expecting to be emotionally broken down. but what i found was spirit. and courage.  and strength.  and inspiration.  but i left with new hearts to love and this village and people captured my heart as well. i hope that you will enjoy or at least appreciate the stories that i am about to tell in the coming blog(s).  it’s not all lovely for sure, but there is hope and love and unity.   i am once again reminded that the needs, the issues are all overwhelming.  a few times, i couldn’t catch my breath.  my head was spinning, not knowing where in the world or how in the world ‘we’ can help.  there are definite funding needs (but honestly not as much as you’d think but still it adds up).  but especially when there are so many other projects and situations here in moshi that i’m committed to.   i am reminded that i can only do so much.

but what i can do.  is listen without judgement.  is to love without limits and condition.   is to accept others as they are.  is to be present in the now.  is to pray for ideas, answers and resources so that i can help these people somehow, someway.  is to give my heart and hand in the spirit of sisterhood.  is to tell their stories with dignity, love and respect.  is to thank God for allowing me to serve as i’ve been called to do.

i will be back very soon to tell you the stories….of habiba.  of ester.  of rehema. of tunu and hawa.  and of rama.

and in the meantime, love. you. all!


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matters of the heart….

living and volunteering/serving in a developing country is the most amazing and rewarding thing ever.  i love it.  but we are so busy that sometimes i just can’t fathom it.  in fact, the other day i made such a statement of amazement of how busy all of us were, considering that we lived in such a laid back, pay no attention to the time world.  the response was, yeah but deb, we live in the world of caring for people and there are so many needs, that we are simply busy with matters of the heart. instead of running to meetings, bureaucracy and dealing with petty BS, we are immersed in real life issues of helping people survive.  (btw, i am not making a judgement on how other busy days and lives are spent.  i spent all my life crazy busy and not always was it well spent or useful but it was the lifestyle and culture i was dealt and chose. or perhaps endured at times hahaa).

the reality – stark, sad and true – is that we are not only busy but often overwhelmed.  overwhelmed by love for the people.  by the needs.  by the calls.  our hearts are burst wide open with the need, the WANT, the desire to help the people.  we really want to see these lovely children, women, men – to have medicine, food, health and the basics.  they have simply been placed in circumstances in which they just simply do not have.

in those overwhelmed moments, i find myself sitting (whether at the house or in the car, wherever) not knowing what to do.  tears flood my eyes, run down my face.  my heart  cracks open, wider even when i think it can’t any more.  you know, there is something to be said for being numb.  believe me i know that.  i spent years being heart- numb – that’s another story and not for here, but i have released that numbness and have again allowed myself to feel even to the point of pain. and it is not easy nor comfortable. i do not want to be hurting so much for people, especially when i just don’t have the ability to have a solution immediately (oh, i still want that immediate gratification!) but i know, seriously, i do, that this is part of the journey i’m on.  and so.  i know that i will just have to deal with the heart hurt.  and the tears. and the knowing that i cannot fix all of this, but can just do what i can.

i want to share a few stories just from this week alone. allow yourself to listen, to feel, to break.  if your heart hears and feels, i would love to know, won’t you tell me?

her name is happiness.  she is 5 years old.  FIVE.  her face is the picture of innocence.  her dress is filthy dirty.  i met her at the center for street children, noticed that she is a new there.  who is she, what is her story?  each time i’ve been there in her first week, she is BY ME.  connecting. i pick her up, hold her, she sits close to me, her head in my lap.  i am smitten, i am in love with her.  immediately.  SHE IS FIVE.  she and her young brother have lived on the streets for months, maybe longer.  her mother is blind.  social workers found them and took the children, eventually placing them at the center that we place volunteers with (and i am serving as mentor/advisor to the director).  i have to stop while writing this because it breaks me every time i think of her.  and she is one of thousands of kids on the streets for various reasons.  and by the way, we (foot2afrika) have a vision called moshi youth village to help kids just like her – so that one day they can escape the cycle of poverty, and learn skills and a trade so that they can support their family and not return to the streets.  this is the dream of sadock  johnson (founder of foot2afrika), who speaking of hearts, has an amazing big heart for his people and community and is always tirelessly giving.

cecy is in her 20s.  she is a tanzanian, a beautiful woman, intelligent and caring.  while researching a project for her master’s in public administration, she encountered children that are abused, neglected, uncared for.  she could not forget that.  she knew, she FELT that she must do something.  her heart spoke to her. she left her education and started an orphanage 1 year ago for the 5 that were in the worst situations – juma, boniface, anitha, jessica, shamimu.  they are between the ages of 5 and 7.  the house does not have electricity but isn’t too bad otherwise.  a couple of volunteers from israel this summer purchased mattresses and paid for their education this year so they have nice places to sleep and are getting education. but she often just doesn’t have money for food or medical expenses.  in fact, today i got an email from her: all of her children (and truly she is now the mama and they ARE her children) were sick and she was trying to get them to the doctors (without transportation either) and get them well. i can handle the medical expenses as we have a medical fund to assist with that.  and then she says, deb, we have no food.    i am dropped to my knees.  i have committed to helping a project for this weekend (next story) as well as the women’s group so i have some limitations, but tell me, how in the hell do i not just drop everything to do this?  well, the answer is yes, i will find a way to get her money for food.  there is just no way not to.  the thing is too, that cecy shares so much joy and love – her emails to me end with “have a bright day, i love you”.  she does what she does because it has been placed on her heart, and not because she knows how it will be provided to her.  what a leap of faith.  and cecy, yes, i love you too, and shamimu, juma, bonny, anitha, and jessica.

(well, it’s just too damn bad that crying doesn’t consume lots of calories… just sayin….)

here are cecy’s children. aren’t they beautiful.  and trust me, they are well behaved, loving and just precious. from left to right, shamimu, anitha, jessica, juma and boniface (bonny).  and yes, i’m in love with them too.  and you should see them dance!

and so, then, here’s what my heart faces this weekend.  on friday, i will visit a village to meet, to listen to women and children that have HIV/AIDS.  the last few weeks, i have also been helping my friend emmason who also has a volunteer organization that focuses on this particular remote village.  while there are a number of projects that he helps the village with, i have been feeling a pull towards this particular issue (HIV/AIDS).  the women there with HIV/AIDS have already said that they are willing to share their stories, so that others will hear, others will learn, others will know of the life, of the trials, of how they hope to overcome.  it is part of my education, part of how we will find ways to support their organization that cares for about 30 children with HIV.   there is no funding support for their basic needs (transportation, nutrition, etc).  the women formed a group to oversee the support; they along with the support of emmason, who has a vision and a big heart of his own to help the people of this village.   i know that this will be  heart breaking and i don’t think that i will escape without being laid flat open.  but i’m prepared to be totally blessed with meeting these women and children and becoming involved with this project.

i love where i’m at in this moment.  i am surrounded by some amazing people who have a huge capacity for caring and hearts for making a difference in their world.  they care not for money, glory or fame.   we all work long hours and sometimes have no idea how we will be able to manage.  we are often collectively and individually overwhelmed.   today walking along the dirty road, my thought was really that i don’t want wealth for my own self.  i just would like to have that abundance so that i could give freely when these needs were presented.  that’s all.

in the meantime, i just feel blessed to be here, to have the opportunity to meet the individuals that i work alongside of and those that i meet along the way.  and for sure i am blessed by happiness, by cecy, by shamimu, bonny, anitha,  jessica and bonny.  and many more that i serve each and every day. my dada/sister margaret  and the children of destiny.  aisha and the women of rudisha.  the children of msamaria.  it is truly a love story all the way around.

my first magazine article will be  printed (if all goes as planned) in the march edition of tulsa lifestyle.  it will be about some of my experiences here as a volunteer in tanzania and the concept of volunteer vacations.  to those of you that have been encouraging me to ‘write’, well, maybe this is the beginning.  i feel a bit of a ping that i may be writing about the women and children of the village.  something just tells me….

thanks for reading, and for allowing me to share my heart with you.  i hope that it filled you not so much with sadness but with awareness, the presence of love, and the beauty of the children and people here that are survivors, that have hopes and dreams. sending you my love, my wishes for happiness, peace, joy and bliss.

you. are. loved.