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About the cover

 

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.

Hotvedt is a mostly retired counselor with a lot of experience working with non-profit boards and administrating programs. Her job in Zambia is a mixed bag, running everything from counseling groups to fundraising craft fairs, from building crews to skill-building programs.

"What is it that they call me again?" she muses to Garrett. "Oh, I'm the 'development director!'" she says with a laugh. "Well, that's what they're calling me now. That about says it all."

She provides many layers of administrative assistance, working closely with the manager of the orphanage — who is, himself, an orphan — and serving on the children's fund's board of directors. She helps set up bank accounts for employees of the orphanage and school.

"Don't forget going to the bank for us, too," Garrett reminds her. "That's an all-day job sometimes. You can stand in line for two hours."

Chishawasha was awarded a grant for self-sustainability and innovation last year, Hotvedt says. The money went to start up a poultry operation she facilitates.

"We raise chickens and we use the eggs ourselves and sell some," she explains.

Her duties also include some substitute teaching at the school, working with the builders in planning new buildings, and providing individual and small group counseling. Plus she runs the on-site skills center where Zambian orphans learn things like tailoring, carpentry and small electrical repair.

"That's real important," Garrett puts in. "They have a 70 percent unemployment rate in the country. Absolutely anything you can do to give these children skills, so they can get a job, so they can make a living and support themselves, is extremely valuable."



Hotvedt and Garrett take turns describing their long, full days in Zambia. "Well, our days begin at 7 a.m., being greeted by the children," she says with a laugh, and describes the lengthy cultural protocol of African greetings. In a land with so little, she explains, family is everything. "You cannot pass someone in the street without saying hello and asking after all the members of their family. And you do it genuinely, and by name," she emphasizes. "Your brother, so-and-so. Is he well? And your sister, so-and-so, how is she?" Hotvedt demonstrates. "Sometimes the children will tell me if I've been rude because I didn't ask them enough questions."

Hotvedt has her share of mundane daily tasks in the somewhat rustic facility. Outside of the rainy season, Zambia is a parched and dusty land. Add to this the fact that most of Chishawasha's doors don't fit very well in their frames or reach to the floor.

"I spend part of every day sweeping out the dust and the scorpions," Hotvedt says.

Next comes making plans for the day, "Though our plans are often shot to hell by 10 o'clock!" she confesses, laughing.

By this time of the morning, Garrett has done his first medical rounds at the clinic, bandaging cuts, checking complaints, making sure children who need medications have taken them. Some of the orphans are on anti-retrovirus treatments for the HIV handed down to them through their now-dead mothers.

Then he heads off to do morning medical rounds at another orphanage/school and Hotvedt plunges into her administrative tasks for the day, "keeping everything running, doing whatever's needed, handling things as they come up," she says lightheartedly. By afternoon, Garrett is back at Chishawasha, doing his handyman duties as needed.

The atmosphere at the orphanage is very much like one of a large extended family. The couple has dinner with the residential children each night.

"After dinner, we basically goof off with the kids," Garrett says. "You know, we just, well, play."

But their day has far from ended. After dinner and "goofing around," Hotvedt runs mental-health groups and has one-on-one discussions as needed. Garrett facilitates math groups for the girls, often neglected in African schools. He finishes up with another minor round of medical checks as the children hunker down to bed for the night.

"We go from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week," Hotvedt says. "It's a long, full day. And you know what they say, 'It's a good kind of tired!'"



Working in the orphanage, being such an integral part of the children's lives for long stints at a time, has brought the couple many poignant moments, they say.

"Oh, there are so many stories," Hotvedt exclaims. She talks about "our Force," the little boy on the cover of the Ambuya program brochure. She takes a picture down from the kitchen wall — a child's drawing on plain white paper.

"Force drew me this," she says, pointing out various elements in the picture. Mimicking a little boy's husky voice, she says, "Auntie Mary, I draw you a zebra!" pronouncing the word with an African accent, short e and a rolling of the r. She laughs and shows the mango tree Force drew, numerous fruits on a stick-like trunk. She points out a circle with dark dots drawn inside it. "I think that's a toilet, with poop," she says, once again imitating Force's voice.

Garrett gives a knowing look and a smile. "Oh, he's fascinated with poop," he says with a laugh. "He showed me a hole he had dug and then he was throwing rocks into it. He was laughing, just delighted, and I asked, 'What's that?' and he says, 'Poop!' Everything is just so delightfully down-to-earth with these kids."

Some stories are memorable not because of the touching, child-like innocence, however. Some stories, Hotvedt allows, stay in the mind because of the crushing poverty, and the power of the human spirit to overcome, to survive. She tells the story of three siblings who came to the orphanage one day, children who lost both mother and father within 48 hours. Both parents probably had AIDS, she says, and succumbed to cholera less than two days apart.

"They came to us so malnourished," Hotvedt says. "My God, what it was like just to see them eat!" She pauses to collect herself at the memory. "They were actually smiling as they ate. Have you ever seen children smile as they are eating? They were just so thankful, so happy to have food."

Hotvedt and Garrett say not only the children but Zambia itself has charmed them. They have taken pains to learn much about the country that is now their part-time home. Garrett launches into a mini history lesson, about Zambia's days as "White Rhodesia" and its British colonial roots. Estimates of the total number of languages spoken in Zambia vary from 43 to 70, depending on whether some dialects are counted as languages in their own right. English is the official language, but there are seven other major tongues.

Garrett explains that there has been a campaign toward "anti-tribalism," and efforts to develop a Zambian identity, unifying the country with English, music and other cultural elements. Most children at the orphanage speak up to three languages, he says, and some are conversant in five or more. Admitting that learning languages is not his strong point, he says he knows "only greetings, just enough to be polite."

Hotvedt, on the other hand, seems to take to language. "I can speak a little 'baby' Nyanja," she says excitedly. "I'm to the point where I can make bad jokes, and that really makes the kids laugh!"



Hotvedt brings out a large handled bag, decorated with the flag of Zambia, and pulls out large pieces of boldly colored fabric. Striking designs in deep greens, dark reds — these are distinctly African colors. Through the skills center she coordinates at the orphanage, participants learn to make shopping bags, purses, placemats and garments. She pulls out a long skirt that one of the young women made for her.

She shows off charming potholders in cheerful blues and greens — some of the products made by a women's cooperative against domestic violence. Proceeds go toward women and their families, she says.

From around her house, she gathers up wooden candlesticks in the shapes of African animals. "They're well used, as you can see," she says, excusing the wax drips. She pulls out a small drawer in a wooden giraffe's side. "That's for the matches!"

She holds out a small black cup, designs painted on the sides. It is a traditional Zambian vessel, made of paper-mache, she explains. From her kitchen she collects intricately woven brown and tan baskets.

"These are typical of the area," she says. Though the baskets are stunning and appear delicate, Hotvedt insists these are not works of art but utilitarian items. "I use them. That's what they're made for, not to just sit there being pretty."

Part of Hotvedt's work includes organizing the crafts fairs where these products — potholders and candlesticks, paper-mache vessels and baskets and more — are sold. "It's very satisfying, this skills center, to teach the children how to make these things that are of value, that they can then sell. It's a big step toward self-sufficiency."

Garrett emphasizes this point. "Yes, this is an orphanage, but we're not there to get these kids adopted out. We're there to make good Zambians," he says. "We're helping them to survive, first of all, and then giving them the resources for a better life."

Hotvedt says her goal at the Zambian Children's Fund is "ultimately to become obsolete. Basically, I do everything I can to help make this a self-sustaining operation. My goal is to see Zambians helping Zambians."

Garrett chimes in with agreement. "It's what a good parent does, if you think of it: to become loved and then become obsolete," he says. "One day, you are not there anymore for your child, but you have given your child what it needs to survive."



Asked how people can help the Zambian Children's Fund, Hotvedt mentions the organization's Web site (www.zambianchildrensfund.org), with numerous donation opportunities. There is the "honorary grandmother" project, of course, and a general fund that supports the orphanage, with its clinic, school and skills center. Locally, the Gila Friends Meeting has been especially supportive, she says.

One particularly creative and interesting project that also generates funds for the orphanage is the "Kids with Cameras" project created by Klaus Schoenwiese, a New York City photographer. In May 2007, Schoenwiese brought cameras and film to Chishawasha and gave a three-week workshop to 12 children there. Schoenwiese instructed the children in the art of photography, and mentored them on capturing scenes from their everyday lives at the orphanage, as well as life in their villages and their extended families, where possible. The children also took photography field trips to a market, a game reserve and a fishery.

The often-breathtaking results were featured in the November 2007 Smithsonian magazine. Chishawasha exhibited 250 of the kids' pictures in a large classroom. Schoenwiese sells prints of the children's photos on his Web site (www.tribeofman.com/shop), with the proceeds funding the Kids With Cameras project (www.kids-with-cameras.org/news) and supporting the orphanage. This month, March 15-28, the photos will be on exhibit at the Manhattan World Culture Open Center.

And if a person or couple should be bitten by "the Zambia bug" and want to volunteer like Hotvedt and Garrett? Well, it's not for everyone, they'll tell you. The days are, after all, long and hard. Cultural differences and living conditions can certainly challenge.

But there are undeniably big rewards, too, and the orphanage can always use more creative, loving, hard-working hands. The two ardent Zambia volunteers advise wannabes to "take stock," and then they proceed to get downright rhapsodic in their list of considerations large and small.

"Don't be afraid!" Hotvedt starts out boldly. "So many things will challenge you, but it is so rewarding to step out of your comfort zone and do something like this. You need to ask yourself some questions, like 'Are you willing to let your assumptions fall away?'"

Garrett pipes up with, "Yes! Can you accept that the way you do things, the way things are in your culture, is not the only way it is? Not even the best way?"

There are also practical considerations, Hotvedt adds: "How long am I willing to stay? How much of my personal resources am I willing to use?"

While she and Garrett feel at home in Zambia — for the rewards they get from their work at the orphanage, for the country's climate and its loving, friendly people who so strongly value family — she cautions that the rustic conditions there are not for everyone.

"The power there goes out all the time!" she exclaims. "We're lucky. We have a generator now, so we can keep the toilets flushing and the kitchen running. Oh, and the skills center. We can keep the skills center open no matter what now."

The generator was a gift from a church in Tucson. Garrett quickly points out that the Zambia Children's Fund is not religion-affiliated, and jokes that they are "non-denominational acceptors of any and all funds."



Both of them agree they have found value specifically in working in a foreign country, spending a considerable amount of time. Hotvedt says, "You get to know people. You're not just visiting monuments. You become a part of things, a part of life there."

"I think it's one of the richest things you can do," Garrett adds. "It's learning what it is to be human in another culture."

Hotvedt tries to think of more questions a prospective volunteer should ask him or herself. "Oh, are you willing to let your mind be blown?" she adds. "Are you willing to really shift?"

"There's a lot of pain there," Garrett says. "Can you let yourself feel and still endure?"

The two go back and forth with more questions, ranging from broader, more esoteric topics to the purely practical and back again.

Finally, Garret suggests, "Can you give up your goal of changing the world?"

"Oh, that's a big one," Hotvedt says, nodding her head.

Garrett continues, "People come into something like this with some pretty big goals and ideas. We're not there, in Zambia, to try and change the world. We're changing the lives of 53 children," he says. "I ask you, how powerful is that?"

 

For information on the Zambian Children's Fund, write PO Box 42996, Tucson, AZ 85733, call (520) 323-2504, or see www.zambianchildrensfund.org

Donna Clayton Lawder is senior editor of Desert Exposure.



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