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D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e    March 2008

A World of Good

Volunteering at an orphanage in AIDS-ravaged Zambia, Pinos Altos retirees Mary Hotvedt and Bob Garrett change lives, one child at a time.

Story and photos by Donna Clayton Lawder



Barely settled in from a trip to the West Coast, Pinos Altos residents Mary Hotvedt and her husband, Bob Garrett, are getting ready to shove off for Zambia. Again. This will be his third visit to the South African country and her fourth, since they first laid eyes on it in late 2006.

Mary Hotvedt and Bob Garrett pose with a couple of the baskets they bought in Zambia. Though the baskets are beautiful and delicately woven, they are made for everyday use.

Diehard tourists? Hardly. This mostly retired couple is packing up for three months of volunteer service at an orphanage, looking forward to working long, hard days, seven days a week.

"We just got back from San Diego for a christening," Hotvedt says brightly. "On our way back, through Tucson, the gem and mineral show was in town so we bought beads for the kids in Zambia."

A small woodstove warms the living room of their simple, cozy home, and the two settle into comfortable couches, eager to tell stories about this other home they've found in a far-off land. Told about the Zambian Children's Fund by a close friend — program founder Kathe Padilla from Tucson — the two were drawn to the idea of helping at the Chishawasha orphanage, a facility with a school, clinic and skills center.

"We spent two weeks on a scouting trip to check it out," Garrett recalls.

What they found was a calling.

"Its name, 'Chishawasha,' means 'that which endures' in Bemba (one of Zambia's many languages)," Hotvedt says. Touched by the children and "bitten by the African bug," they returned in January 2007 for a five-month volunteer stint. In November, Hotvedt returned again solo for a specific two-week project.

"This next trip," Hotvedt says, "will be for three months." Their continent-hopping immunizations from 2006 — meningitis, tetanus, yellow fever and polio among them — are still good for this trip, she says happily. "We're just taking our malaria preventative now to get ready."

Garrett adds, "We told them (the immunization medics) we were going to Mali, so they gave us everything!" While yellow fever, for example, goes on and off the list of required vaccinations for international travelers, Mali is among the African nations requiring the most immunizations. So getting immunized "for Mali" ensured that all their bases were covered, Garrett explains.



The Zambian Children's Fund, founded in 1999, was created to help feed and support the staggering number of orphaned Zambian children.

"AIDS is nothing short of a plague there," Garrett says. In 2006, one in three Zambians was HIV positive, according to the organization's literature. Zambia has one of the highest rates of orphaned children in the world — an estimated two million orphans, a third of all the children in Zambia. Sixty percent of the country's population of around 11 million is under the age of 18.

"People here really cannot imagine the impact," Garrett says. "Everyone we work with at the orphanage has lost someone to AIDS. Not just someone they know, but a family member, someone close. The most common reason to take off from work is to attend a funeral."

The way in which AIDS has struck Zambia, Hotvedt adds, is why there is such a particular pattern of devastation. "The greatest risk group is women of child-bearing age," she says. "Men's sexual freedom there is much greater than that of the women, and so it is rampant among men there and the women contract HIV, quite frankly, when they get married."

Garrett solemnly nods. "Try to imagine a society in which there are grandparents and grandchildren, but almost nobody in the middle. No parents. That's why we have this particular situation, with so many orphans," he says.

One of the programs run by the Zambia Children's Fund, in fact, is called "The Ambuya Project." Ambuya means "grandmother" in Zambia. On the cover of one brochure, a smiling, round-faced Zambian boy, looking about four years old, holds a sign declaring, "Every child needs a grandmother!" Statistics show that orphaned Zambian children raised by their grandmothers are more likely to survive and get an education. Donors to the program become "honorary ambuyas," helping to fund orphanages like Chishwasha where "house mothers" provide a nurturing presence, caring supervision and support, along with volunteers like Hotvedt and Garrett.

"Extended families are strong in Africa," Hotvedt says. "It is a very strong force in the African culture. Around 99 percent may have extended families. And this is so important. But the question is if these grandmothers can take care of the children. Do they have enough food? Do they have the resources?"

There are now 53 residential orphans at Chishawasha, she says, adding with a smile, "We heard that a lot of four- to nine-year-old boys just came in." This influx makes it hard for her to estimate the children's average age, but she acknowledges the facility has a growing population of children under 10. "We'll keep them until they complete high school or learn a skill," she says.

Though the residential orphans may have a grandmother or extended family, those families are not able to provide for them, Hotvedt explains. Another 50 or so children pass through the Chisawasha orphanage daily — receiving two hot meals, clean water, health-care education and skills training.

Garrett nods and adds that while the residential children also have dinner at the orphanage, it's a different story for those who go home to their extended families at the end of the day. "We're pretty sure that for most of them, the meal they get with us is the only food they'll see that day," he says. "But we're glad they're getting that, of course."



Though Garrett and Hotvedt are quick to say that any volunteer is a useful volunteer, they acknowledge that their own professional backgrounds — medical and administrative — have turned out to be extremely useful to the Zambian Children's Fund.

Garrett says, "I retired from my psychiatry practice of 38 years, and wanted to do something else that allows me to 'give back'. This puts my basic medical school training to good use." He does daily medical rounds at the orphanage's clinic. "It's basically blood tests and stethoscopes all over again." He adds that he's sometimes called upon to swing a hammer in the afternoon, filling in with basic handyman repairs.



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