Letters from a ravaged land

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Death is everywhere. Two this week. We went to a funeral during language class and there was a hut of women singing and mourning, some men under a tree. … No one talks about AIDS. But it is here. Every day. Two little boys live at my house. Joe, the oldest of the two, told me that their fathers are both dead. I’ve seen a little HIV/AIDS propaganda but it is mostly advocating abstinence. … Some Peace Corps volunteers say that their students have sex in the bushes during tea break.”

These moving words are from Carley Wellman, a Peace Corps volunteer in Zimbabwe during late 1999 and early 2000. These letters that she wrote to friends and family in Michigan during her stay are testament to the human faces and devastation of AIDS. The statistics she quotes may no longer be accurate, but her words are eloquent and emotional.

We print them now to help raise awareness for upcoming AIDS-related fundraisers. Wellman is participating in the Aug. 20-25 Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride, a 500-mile bicycle ride to raise funds for AIDS vaccine research. People interested in supporting this effort can learn more on the World Wide Web at www.vaccineride.org.

Closer to home, the AIDS Walk Detroit — a 5K walkathon benefiting agencies providing direct care and education — takes place Sept. 16 in Royal Oak. Call 248-399-WALK for more information. The Ann Arbor AIDS Walk will be held Sept. 30. Call 734-572-9355 for information on that or check out www.aidswalkmichigan.org for information on either local walk.

Sat., 30 Oct., 1999

One week in rural Zimbabwe feels like a century. I’m back at the Sheraton Harare en route to visit a mysterious Peace Corps volunteer far, far in the bush. Two days of travel. It is part of our training. It is a strange time.

My homestay family where I’ll live for the next few months is the home of Chief Bunina, the chief of four villages in Lower Gweru. We met in a strange stare-down of Peace Corps volunteers and a few hundred rural Zimbabweans. The chief stood and greeted us in the N’debele language, the choir sang an African song. Then they introduced the chief’s daughter — me.

Amai Bunina (the wife) stood in the center of the crowd and held open her arms and hugged me. Everyone cheered and then laughed. Then she took me by the hand and led me toward home.

Amai Bunina is 67 years old and has a wonderful face with three teeth, all in a row.

The house is a light blue cement structure with two rooms. One for me. One for the rest of the household. The kitchen is a mud hut with a thatch roof. There is no electricity or running water (a chimbuzi — latrine — in the yard with a luxurious concrete seat), a thousand chickens, a few cows, a strange dog, and a giant turkey that likes to chase people and gobble all night long roaming around.

There is a granddaughter who lives there who is 23 and works from 4 a.m. until bedtime, which usually happens around 8:30 p.m. She is dirty and wears ripped clothes and no shoes. She’s a large, gawky girl and her name is a long N’debele name that begins with Nyo. So that’s what I call her. She kneels to give me food and coughs all the time. One night I asked her where she sleeps and she told me in the kitchen. The mud hut. Where there are chickens and dirt and large hairy spiders. She asked me if she could sleep on my floor. What could I say? Now it is a stressful and difficult situation, since we are supposed to have our own rooms. But I can’t ask her to leave and go back to the kitchen. So we have things to work out.

Amai Bunina knocks on my door every morning around 5 a.m. and says, “Gogogoi Calley, you must wash your body now,” and then leads me to the bathing shed where there is an old brown bathtub and usually some lizards. She gives me a bucket with some warm water that she’s cooked over a fire.

This morning it was 4:30 a.m. She didn’t want me to miss my friends who were meeting me in three hours. Then she cooked me breakfast: tea, fried egg, bread, tomatoes and onions, potatoes, and a horrible mix of peanut butter and rape (a green leafy vegetable, like spinach).

Two nights ago I came home and found them grinding nuts to make peanut butter, and I asked what they did with peanut butter in Zimbabwe. “Oh, we put it in cabbage and tomatoes.” I thought they must have misunderstood. But alas, dinner was a large pot of exactly that.

Also this week I was served day-old unrefridgerated coleslaw swarming with ants. Last night a large beetle walked out from and then back into my plate of sadza. The bread is gritty. There are large particles covered with ants in my water tub. At the training center they serve us cold canned baked beans and peas. Yesterday dessert was Jell-O with large tea biscuits jelled right into it. That is not to complain. Just to show you all why I lay awake laughing in the night.

Death is everywhere. Two this week. We went to a funeral during language class, and there was a hut of women singing and mourning, some men under a tree. There is always a strange excuse. His liver was funny, he had “blood pressure.” No one talks about AIDS. But it is here. Every day. Two little boys live at my house. Joe, the oldest of the two, told me that their fathers are both dead. I’ve seen a little HIV/AIDS propaganda, but it is mostly advocating abstinence. “NO SEX OUTSIDE MARRIAGE.” Some Peace Corps volunteers say that their students have sex in the bushes during tea break.

Of course I was expecting a lot of this. The poverty, the AIDS epidemic and its impact. The mud huts. But it feels so overwhelming and sad. It is more emotional than I thought it would be, already. I’m depressed instead of invigorated. It’s going to be a hard two years. I can tell already.

Love, Carley

Sat., 27 Nov., 1999

Yebo Yebo.

Someone wanted to know some African words. That’s N’debele. I walk down the dirt road which is my street for now, and the neighbors run out and say, “Salibonani,” which means, I see you, and the reply, “Yebo,” means yes. It is a funny language.

I am feeling much changed since my last e-mail. Happy and sane and grounded and all of those good and healthy things. It is strange how easy it is to get used to chunks in my bath water. The stressful things are not what I thought they would be. I like candlelight, walking out to the chimbuzi, not driving, not parking the car or vacuuming, etc. But to run out of flashlight batteries is not good. And the candle blows out in the wind.

Also I have questions about development, and I’m worried that somehow what work I’m doing is not good. The teachers at my school use solar power to watch episodes of the “Golden Girls” and Rhodesians doing the rumba on their little TV for hours and hours. I always envisioned people sitting in their electrified huts reading English books to become better doctors. Something idealistic like that. Mrs. Chinoputsa, my headmistress, has a paraffin refrigerator. Oh, I think, she can refrigerate her mayonnaise. No. Instead, she keeps a full stock of Zambezi beer there.

I should back up. Last time I wrote I was on my way to my Peace Corps site visit. Which ended up being wonderful. I rode to Masvingo, then met up with my host PC volunteer, and we took a chicken bus four-and-a-half hours to his site. Three crates of chickens rode the bus with us, and a woman sat nursing her baby in the seat with the two of us. At his site, the Peace Corps everyone talks about came alive. Kids in their school uniforms ran out to greet us without shoes, carrying our groceries, laughing, asking “Meesta Kootis” (Stephen Kutis) if he was married. They’d never seen a white woman. It was a place that rural. They knocked on the door all day wanting to meet me, wanting my address, asking me questions.

We cooked over the fire, saw a zillion shooting stars, hiked to a dam. We watched the villagers building a canal wall. It’s amazing the way the women walk so proud and straight, carrying jugs of water on their heads in the middle of the hot day, in bright fabrics, no shoes, no sweat. Some of the men ran up a wall with no shoes on, built bricks, carried huge boulders. It is so humbling to watch people work here.

I left his site on the 2:30 a.m. bus and watched the sun rise over the mountains. and everything was a golden pink color and the acacia trees were in the distance with the balancing rocks, and I felt genuinely happy to be here. For the first time. But that feeling hasn’t left me since.

The next week I received my site assignment, which turned out to be in Masvingo (pronounced Mah-shingo). A school right on the tar road, an easy 40-minute bus ride from the small town, which is actually a little touristy since it is near the Great Zimbabwe Ruins. There are a few grocery stores, an Internet cafe, a hotel to have drinks at, a backpackers lodge, a department store. It feels too easy.

My site is beautiful. Green and mountainous, with a red dirt road and balancing rocks and good trees and a river. I ate papaya off of Mrs. Chinoputsa’s tree, and she told me there are fruits for every season: guava and mango, matamba, peaches, lychee, bananas, and lots of wild African fruits. I have a plot for a garden and half of a little blue concrete house that looks out across a valley full of acacia trees. There are little brown huts, and cows walking down the road.

My headmistress, Mrs. Chinoputsa, is pretty liberal. She’s a woman, for one, which is quite exceptional for Zimbabwe. She has AIDS awareness posters all over her house and the school, and talks openly about the epidemic: how it’s taken so many people in her family, how some of the teachers have died recently, how Zimbabwe is in serious trouble. She was very hospitable and put me in her guest bedroom with a pregnant chicken, which I found running around squawking with broken eggs everywhere at one point. She’d forgotten to tell me I had a roommate.

After visiting my site, I visited Holly, my favorite volunteer so far, whose site is an hour on the other side of Masvingo, close to Lake Kyle. We took a sunset boat cruise over to the game park and saw hippo and drank beer and laughed at the fact that we’re in the Peace Corps. It always seems funny to find myself doing something indulgent.

The rest of the time has become sort of routine. Training is long and tiring and boring and tedious, and I can’t wait for it to be over. We swear in on December Dec. 23, and from there I go to South Africa to visit Kate and Tom in Durban, then back to Lower Gweru for the millennium. We’re supposedly having a traditional ceremony and goat roast. Dancing and singing with drums and music and good light, and an incredible sky full of shooting stars. I can’t wait.

Love, Carley Bunina

Sun., 09 Jan., 2000

So now it’s been awhile and I can’t, don’t even know where to begin.

I moved into my blue concrete house on Friday, with the asbestos roof and a view of the valley with acacia trees and balancing rocks and a papaya tree in the front yard. I bought a bed, a wardrobe, a kitchen table with four chairs and a little kitchen cupboard. That first morning I borrowed my neighbor’s metal tub to bathe in my kitchen. I ate bread with dovi (local peanut butter) and used my Swiss army knife and candles and listened to my wind-up radio. It felt good to not be a guest anymore.

Life in Lower Gweru at Chief Bunina’s house was strange and stranger, and yet normal at the same time. Once I got used to eating carbohydrates and oil and accepted the fact that I was going to get fat on sadza and oily potatoes and that I was going to have to eat the muriwo with peanut butter and the sand in my bread, I just had fun with things.

One day the first rain came. A loud thunderstorm that beat against the roof so hard I couldn’t hear my own voice reading the poems in my little room. Kennedy came to my door afterward, when the sun was beginning to set and the whole world was golden and the leaves on the mango trees were shiny and the light was hazy and incredible and the air was sweet. He’d learned to say, “Sister, you are being called.” And I came to the hut where Amai was sitting on the straw mat with tears in her eyes next to Nyo and they were looking out into the yard. “We must now pray,” Amai said. “To give thanks for this rain.”

And we all got onto the floor and said our prayer, and Amai told me how she was crying and crying she was so happy because now we can plow the millet. Now we will have food to eat. Now the grandchildren can go to school. There were lots of moments like that.

One day my language trainer gave me a homework assignment. Go home and ask about Tokoloshi. Nothing else. I had no idea what I was asking. I got out my notebook when I was home and asked Amai and Nyo. They acted very nervous and strange and looked away. “Oh, we do not know, we do not know. We have never seen. Never seen.”

Never seen what? What is it? I kept asking, and they seemed very nervous and the only answer I got was this from Amai:

“I have never seen. But it may be a person or a donkey. But I have not seen. Not as such.”

It turns out that Tokoloshi are little evil trolls that go around stealing money. They come from South Africa. They are very bad, and talk about them is maybe a sign of bad luck.

Amai went to the local meeting and brought it up. At the local meeting it was decided that the Americans had brought the Tokoloshi, and there seemed to have been some money missing somewhere. I’m not sure how this all fits in. Anyway, then Chief Bunina called in a very famous n’yanga (witch doctor) to come to Lower Gweru. He sat in a tent behind the shops for a week or so and people lined up to see him. Hundreds of people in a big long line that wound around up and over the hills. My friend looked in the back of the tent, and he was drumming and chanting and making other strange noises. None of it seemed real.

I welcomed the new millennium dancing a Zambian dance around a fire near the Lower Gweru shops. Donkeys in the distance. We slept on the dirt under a tarp. It probably sounds more romantic than it was. I was sick the next day.

And Christmas was wonderful. I visited Kate and Tom, and Kate’s family in their beach house north of Durban, and ate caviar and Brie and drank red wine all week, looking out over the Indian Ocean and laughing a lot. We took a game drive and saw giraffe and rhino and zebra and impala and cape buffalo and spent the night in a little hut. It was hard to go back to bucket baths and Chief Bunina’s hut after that. Very hard.

Love, Carley

Sun., 30 Jan., 2000

Makadini shamwari? (How are you? I am fine if you are fine.)

I wish I could write another letter full of golden light and pink clouds and the silhouettes of acacia trees. I want to be able to say again that I’m happy to be here in Peace Corps Zimbabwe, that I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else in the world.

But at this moment, I’d give anything to be back in my apartment in Denver making olive pâté ... or teaching rich white kids how to read a poem ... or driving through the Michigan slush in rush hour.

The other volunteers warned that this would be an awful month of ups and downs. What an understatement.

To begin: the cover of the latest Newsweek International: “10 Million Orphans” … AIDS, of course.

Here is one response I got to my students’ first assignment:

Dear Miss Wellman,

I’m very pleased to write this to you telling you about my life. I was born on the thirteenth of August 1986. The names of my parents are Vimbai Mavingwa and Christopher Nyadenga and my mother was died on the sixteenth September 1998. On those days I was sad and have great thoughts about my mother. The second thought was how would I go on with school. In order to have a good employment. My father wasn’t have a return back home to see his childrens from 1992 up to the death of my mother. I hope I shall do better to improve a way of life. I hope you a good living. How are you.

Yours faithfully,

Fafarai Nyadenga

Of course I expected things to get tough. Expected to feel overwhelmed, appalled, lonely, frustrated, dirty, sick, exhausted, confused, sad, homesick.

But not hopeless. And I find myself lying in my bed at two in the morning lots of nights feeling hopeless about everything here. Hopeless and empty.

The situation at my site seemed great at first. My school is a 58 kilometer bus ride on the tar road to Masvingo, a sleepy tourist town. It’s 20 kilometers from the Great Zimbabwe Ruins, and I can easily go to town and meet up with any of the several volunteers in my province. I have my own three-room teacher cottage with an asbestos roof, happy blue walls and green doors. It’s shabby in its way: holes in the ceiling, giant cockroaches scratching around, windows with no glass, a cold concrete floor that’s forever dirty. Of course no electricity or water — the bathroom is a chimbuzi that’s outside, around the house, up the mud path and through the corn field — a line of cement shacks shared by everyone in teacher housing. Holes in the ground, smelly, dirty, dead spiders hanging from the sheet of asbestos that is the roof.

But I’m fine with the lack of amenities. My colorful house makes me happy. I bought orange butterfly fabric to use as curtains; I heat my bath water on my tiny gas stove; I buy vegetables from the ladies in the village and cook them with rice. Mangoes are in season now, and I buy them and eat them while I listen to my shortwave radio and watch the sun set. I write letters by candlelight.

I’ve made friends with three little girls named Bianca, Fortunate and Lillian, who come to my house and ask to sweep my floor. And last Friday I had a house full of kids from the village shadow dancing by candlelight to my little portable CD player music. The cockroaches look good against my blue walls — all copper-colored and wiry. So there are good moments. The ups.

The lows, though, started with the school term. They gave me my class schedule. All the Form I classes. Four of them — 200 students, 24 periods a week. Volunteers are only supposed to teach two classes at most, since we’re also in charge of the library. But my school decided that since a volunteer was coming, the other English teacher could go on study leave. So I’m teaching 12- 13- and 14-year-olds who can’t speak English and can’t understand my accent at all.

I have 200 students and 22 textbooks. Most of them ripped and in bad condition. I have to lug them to each period and hand them out by assigned number because if I don’t count them every time the students will steal them. The classrooms have no teacher desk, no glass in the windows, no lights, chalkboards in such bad condition you can’t see what’s written on them. The students sit on boards held up by cinder blocks. The roofs leak, and since it’s the wet season, the corners are usually full of water.

On the first day of school I heard a loud snapping sound coming from the hallway of the staff room and over it a low wailing, followed by laughter. I went to see what it was. Punishment. Teachers taking branches from the trees, and if a student was late or talking or not in uniform, beating them. On the hand if the child had done something mildly wrong, lashes across the back if it was more serious. And all of the teachers watching and laughing as the kids wailed. I stood by the tree crying that day instead of going to teach my class.

Many of my students do not wear shoes. Their uniforms are ripped and full of holes, the fabric so worn you can see through it. They’re bony and they smash together onto the benches that usually fall over at least once a period. And, of course, a lot of them have no parents. The latest official HIV/AIDS statistics of Zimbabwe say 26 percent of the adult population is infected. The highest in the world. I’ve talked to local people who say the reality is something more like 40 percent

And I found out from other volunteers what I find impossible to accept. They said that ALL of the teachers at their schools sleep with students — numerous students. There is a myth that if you sleep with a virgin it will cure HIV. What’s impossible is that the girls want to sleep with teachers because they’ll get rewards: soda money, Freez-its, nail polish. They have nothing, so they’ll do what it takes to get a little of anything. Then the girls sleep with the boys, the teachers sleep with their wives and girlfriends, etc., etc.

It’s not that AIDS isn’t a public issue. There’s propaganda everywhere. But the response you often hear to the prevention campaign is “so if I get AIDS, I’ll die. Is that all?” There doesn’t seem to be any fear of mortality.

And there’s still a stigma attached to the disease. You won’t usually hear AIDS as the cause of death: it’s TB, “blood pressure,” cholera, witchcraft. But not HIV/AIDS.

Other impossibly disturbing things: There is a well-known sex college in Masvingo province for young girls to go through so they’ll be better able to get a husband; rape doesn’t exist (lust is like thirst, it is considered a need in the rural areas); most of the students are molested (I’ve heard 90 percent).

And 80 percent of Peace Corps libraries are destroyed within six months of the volunteer leaving: books stolen, buildings turned into teacher houses.

I find myself asking over and over: Why, why, why am I here? What can I possibly do for this community that will improve anything?

Then last week I went to the township with some teachers and was chased out by the local crazy man who sometimes throws stones and last year stabbed someone. He shouted: “GET OUT IMPERIALIST! GO HOME! YOU ARE NOT WANTED!” So I ran away and have been sending Bianca and Fortunate to buy me bread and candles since then.

So here comes my plea for mail. Real mail. Letters that smell like coffee shops and Sunday winter mornings. I wish for anything you want to send me, however short or long, friendly or rude or dull or gushy. E-mail gets to me here but is very expensive to check, and I’m always a little stressed out when I read it.

So now I’ll just sit back and wait for letters and try to enjoy the January sunset and strange clouds and the sound of African rainstorms hitting my roof.

I’m not giving up just yet. But if I do, will you understand?

Take care. Chisarai zvakanaka.


Mon., 28 Feb., 2000

Hello, hello.

So the first two months are over. And I’m better. No longer hopeless or empty. It was like one day the tarp over the sky opened and I saw the strange orange and pink light again. By evening the world was gold, and then the purple and green glow of night came and the sounds of darkness became comforting: crickets, wild cats screeching far off, the clank of Mrs. Mashingaidze’s pots over the fire. And then I knew I could do it — stay and survive.

I still listen to the beatings and flinch; or stand in front of my students frustrated and exhausted; or sit in the library for hours staring at the mess of yellow, ripped books.

But there are these certain exceptional moments that I’ve never had at any other time or place in my life that get me through the days. Maybe they can only happen in Africa. Maybe I’m looking at the world differently already. I don’t know. But they change everything.

Like this:

I’m sitting at my table writing miserable letter after miserable letter, the mosquitoes sucking at my ankles. There’s a knock at my door late at night, and there is Fortunate, holding a tin cup of sugar beans and an egg and potato fritter for me, a smile on her face so huge and bright it glows in the dark.

Or it’s been raining for five days straight and the hems of my skirts are caked with red from dragging through the mud. It’s damp and cold and I’d rather be reading in bed than sitting in the library in the dark. And then Miss Rova calls me into the clerk’s office to give me two packages from friends. Nyasha, the blind teacher, is standing there too receiving his mail and asks, “Miss Wellman, why is it that you receive so many parcels?” And I tell him, happily, that it’s because I’m loved, which is how I feel whenever I get mail. And he asks, “How can we show you how much you are loved here, if we can’t send you parcels?”

Or it’s afternoon and there are 50 students lined up outside the library for the third day in a row, practically beating down the door to borrow books. They have no shoes, ripped clothes, and bony legs. But they want novels and poetry, textbooks, dictionaries — what I can actually give them.

Or before tea break a small girl walks up to me and hands me something wrapped in newspaper and runs off. I open it at home: two mangoes, huge, perfect and golden.

Or a form three student whom I’ve never met comes to the library with a trashy South African magazine from 1998, open to an article about Sandra Bullock, places it on the table in front of me and says, shyly, “Madam, I have brought you a present.”

Or in the courtyard a student stops me and says, “Maybe you can help me. I have a question. What is a coincidence?” He says it carefully, though imperfectly. And realizing that I have no immediate answer, I tell him to visit me later in the library. When he does, he has a strange glimmer in his eye and the word written on an otherwise empty page in his notebook. I explain how that day I’d written a letter to a good friend I’d lost touch with and had received a letter from her too, and that is a coincidence: two things coinciding in a remarkable way. That same day on the public radio news, they make a report that NASA astronauts saw eight giant orange angels out the window of the spacecraft, wings as large as airplanes.

I’ve stopped teaching four classes and am now only teaching one. I’m instead focusing on the library and have decided to try to get funding to build a structure, which could cost around $10,000 (U.S.). So I spend my days writing donor letters and sometimes going to the resource center in Masvingo to type. And I feel hopeful that what I’m doing here will in the end be good for the community.

I’ve made friends with the fashion and fabrics teacher, Mrs. Manungo, who is teaching me to sew and brings me avocados from her tree.

This weekend we had a four-day break and I went to Vumba, the part of the country that is considered by many to be the most beautiful. It’s in the Eastern Highlands and looks out into Mozambique and is misty and mountainous and haunting. It’s also the part of Zimbabwe that was hit by the cyclone, so I’ve spent the past few days in a lodge without electricity. It’s interesting to be in a place after a natural disaster — people are consumed with measuring the destruction and its effects and everything feels eerie and a little sad. Trees were everywhere and power lines down, and about half of the houses I saw on the very long bus ride to Mutare were destroyed.

I didn’t sleep for two nights during the storm and instead listened to the wind outside knocking against my window and bending the gum trees in half. Very scary. Some of the toilets at the primary school blew over. And my roof became much more leaky; I now have five puddles on the floor every time it rains. But it was sort of exciting to live through a cyclone.

Now I’ve had a good four days of hiking and reading. I went to a cyclone casino party at the fancy hotel near the lodge that had closed because of damage from the storm. There I met the older couple from my volunteer group, and we talked about birds and poetry and mathematical theories (they’re professors of math and science). There was also a girl banging a drum and chanting and making herb tea from wild plants. And I spent some time in the botanical gardens which were closed to the public because they’d been pretty much wrecked. Peace Corps is starting to feel like a series of very strange dreams.

Love, Carley

Sat., 25 Mar., 2000

One thing I’ve realized lately is that in words, poverty can sometimes seem more horrendous to us in the West than it feels in reality. That is not to minimize nor to apologize for what I tell you. Rather, it is meant as one explanation for my staying here and feeling good about things, despite the many reasons I can think of to leave.

Now I see that my shoeless students aren’t uncomfortable in their shredded jerseys any more than I am walking around outside in summertime in my favorite ratty overalls and bare feet. And I’m beginning to understand how the rest of the things that seemed so unbelievable at first go on as they do. Some of my students would rather be beaten than perform their drama for class or come to school on time — the beating is over in a few seconds of pain; other things take a much greater commitment. Maybe the unstoppable promiscuity is the result of a living-for-the-moment lifestyle which, of course, can be a positive thing in the right context.

When I look at them and feel depressed about their reality, I think about Amai Bunina after the first rain of the wet season. The rain had just finished, and the sun was setting. Everything was wet and gleaming with golden light — the puddles looked like pools of gold; the leaves on the mango tree shimmered. Tears were running down her face but a smile filled her mouth and she asked me to kneel while she sang the N’debele prayer. To give thanks, she said, for this rain. To grow the millet. To feed these children.

I have told you this story before, but I remember it because when I’m depressed about reality here, I remind myself that I don’t know that many of us in America — with our garbage disposals, underground sprinkler systems, and pantries full of food — who feel much happier or more satisfied at the end of the day than Amai Bunina. And that means something.

Most often now, what I feel is lucky. And amazed by how generous people are with the little they have. There is always someone knocking at my door with an avocado or a mango, a maize cob, a mushy banana.

So, yes, I’m starting to like it here. Or rather, I’m starting to get used to it. That’s not to say that I feel perfectly happy, but things keep surprising me in unexpected ways. There’s a saying about Peace Corps that says something like volunteers come back from South America political, from Eastern Europe entrepreneurial, from Asia spiritual, and from Africa laughing.

And I do have friends to make me laugh. Mrs. Manungo, Fortunate’s mother, tells me long stories that go on and on about juju, decapitated babies, stolen sugar, and hairs — the moral of which is not to hitchhike. On a bus ride yesterday she told me she was a margarine sandwich, then laughed so hard she cried. And earlier she walked up to a wooden pole that was covered in the brown mud substance with which some insect was making a nest, took off a big chunk, said, “This is delicious,” and ate it.

I realized this past week how much I’m starting to care about people here when Bianca and Lillian came to my door with a note from their mother. Their mother is a beautiful, healthy-looking woman who has the kind of strong voice and presence that draws you toward her. But I hadn’t seen much of her lately until about two weeks ago when I saw her walk past and she looked thinner than usual. I didn’t think about it again until the girls brought me the note which asked for money to go to the Ndanga hospital — ”I’m not feeling well and am out of pocket money.” It was only $100 (about $3 US) so I gave it to Bianca and Lillian. Later I asked Mrs. Manungo if she’d heard what was wrong with Bianca’s mother. No, no one knew — only she’d suddenly become very thin and had sores all over her body. Then I remembered running into her husband a few weeks earlier at the Ndanga Superhotel bar. He was totally plastered and schmoozing with Nancy, the bar maid. Not to jump to any conclusions. (Recently someone told me that the HIV+ rate of new mothers at the Mutare hospital is 53 percent.)

Did I mention that if they can afford it, men can have more than one wife? The man I share my house with (he lives on the other side with his own entrance) has, according to Mrs. Manungo, another wife. One lives with him and cooks his food and takes care of their young daughter. The other one lives somewhere else, about 20 kilometers away.

This man is clearly dying. He must weigh 90 pounds. His clothes hang off his body, he moves slowly, I hear him coughing incessantly through the walls. He misses school half the time (he is a teacher at Chitonhora), and when he is there, he’s sitting in the shade under a tree with a glassy look in his eyes, gazing out over the courtyard. He doesn’t like me, and I’m not sure why. He sometimes nods as he passes me but is never friendly. I feel like he senses that I’m the only one who knows his secret. Everyone acts like he’s fine and well. I hardly know how to think about it.

My friend Tiny, who I like a lot and can talk to easily, came over on Thursday to tell me he’s getting married. I was the first person he’d told. Then he said, “It’s hard to break the habit of going into the bushes with those young girls, but with this AIDS menace, I think it’s time to get married and stick to one partner.” Tiny is the commerce teacher at Chitonhora. Those “young girls” he was talking about are, obviously, my students.

So that’s the reality I’m getting used to.

In other news, things in Zimbabwe are getting pretty crazy politically — a fuel crisis, controversial parliamentary elections which are being postponed, 150 percent inflation rate, white farm invasions, sporadic violence, British citizens being evacuated, plus lots of crops were destroyed by the cyclone and food is getting scarce. All of which are having an impact on everyone throughout the country, and Peace Corps is drilling us on evacuation procedures. So it could get crazier and crazier.

The school term is almost over, and so I have a monthlong holiday beginning April 6. I’ll spend part of it in an In-Service Training, part of it at the Chimanimani Arts Festival, and about 10 days in Malawi with my Peace Corps friend Joanna, sitting on the shore of Lake Malawi drinking coladas or something.

Take good care. Chisarai zvakanaka.

Love, Carley


We left Zimbabwe because the Peace Corps determined it was no longer safe for volunteers to be living in the rural areas. The ruling party, ZANU PF, had put a land reform “program” into effect; basically, the war veterans were invading the farms of white land owners and things had become quite violent. Additionally, many teachers were believed to be associated with the opposition party, MDC, and since many of the Peace Corps volunteers were white teachers, we were potentially targets for the political violence. When we left, we believed we would be able to return within a few months. Peace Corps told us we would be permitted back into the country and into the rural areas following the parliamentary elections. However, the violence continued and is still a big part of the country’s political problems.

I am participating in the Alaska AIDS Vaccine Ride because I feel it’s the only way I can make a difference in the lives of my friends in Zimbabwe. A vaccine is, I believe, the only solution. It will make the biggest, most important, difference in their lives.

Carley Wellman lives in Denver where she works on women's health issues. Send comments to [email protected]
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